Mali’s Music Festivals on the Brink

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 8:51 pm (UTC-4)

Me (left) with Marisa Segala and Gaoussou Diarra

I know a graphic artist/music promoter who works for one of Mali’s premier international music festivals, the Festival sur le Niger (or Niger River Festival). We were Facebook messaging the other day about the upcoming festival (February, 2013 .) Marisa Segala and I first met last year at the festival’s 8th edition located in the city of Segou in Central Mali. Segou is a beautiful and deeply historical Bambara town that stretches along the southern banks of the Niger River. I was there to sing with my Bamako-based band, and Marisa was working for the festival designing the website, press releases, and producing other promotional graphic media. Our Facebook conversation made me laugh when I reviewed it again because it read with a familiar sense of confusion that permeated our experience at the 2012 festival — but for one big difference: The 2012 festival was riddled with logistic inadequacies that affected musicians and organizers back stage. Today we’re confused about the upcoming festivals because they are in exile and on the brink of existence. They are searching for safety in a constantly shifting landscape of terrorist occupied zones. I use festivals in the plural because Mali is home to two of Africa’s best music festivals; the Niger River Festival and the other even more popular one,  Festival au Desert (or Desert Festival.) The latter normally takes place in Northern Mali, just a few kilometers outside of Timbuktu. Last year at the Niger River Festival, the large majority of us festival artists and staffers suffered from being thrown into a state of confusion with high expectations to perform.

Me performing with my band

As for the musicians, we did our best to shake off the mess while onstage. But  offstage, our lodging shortages, dilapidated facilities, spotty transportation to and from the site, inconsistent meals, and a stark absence of communication made for low artistic moral.  I had previously performed at this same festival in 2006. The logistics and accommodations were much better then. But despite internal problems of late, the Niger River Festival’s international reputation has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years — making it one of Africa’s top go-to music festivals today. It is consistently rated as the #3rd Best African Music Festival on,, and OKA’s Guide to Music Festivals. Zanzibar’s Sauti Za Busara places second, while Mali’s Festival au Desert takes the first place. Below is Malian vocalist and 2010 Winner of Victoires de la Musique, Salif Keita — the “Golden Voice of Africa”

My Facebook exchange with Marisa revealed uncertainty as to the location of the Niger River Festival. She is still planning to take the trip (she is based in Denmark) to Segou in 2 weeks. But on-ground realities in Mali are changing every day and it seems unlikely that a festival of such kind can really take place. We also wrangled the topic of the Festival au Desert’s fluctuating locations and artist rosters. After last year’s low turnout at the Desert Festival in Timbuktu, it reinvented itself for 2013 in order to stay alive. Already because of growing unrest in Northern Mali in January 2012, attendance took a serious nosedive. Foreigners were not willing to risk attending a music festival in Timbuktu and the Sahara Desert where white tourists were popular targets for kidnappings. It had top rate music stars performing for a fraction of the audience from previous years. The excerpt below features the band and 2012 Grammy Award winner Tinariwen, N’goni maestro Bassekou Kouyate, and Bono – the Irish musician and humanitarian best known for being the main vocalist of the rock band U2.

The festival announced that it would manifest as a caravan for the 2013 edition, appropriately titled Le Festival au Desert in Exile. “Despite our present ‘exiled’ status from Timbuktu,” the website mission statement reads, “in proud nomadic tradition, we will embark on a 2013 caravan of artists, fans and festivals uniting for Peace, Tolerance and Human Dignity. The tour will begin in the Sahel region of Africa, and then travel internationally until we are able to return to our homeland in peace and freedom of expression.” The problem here is that the caravan’s projected tour is so complicated and splintered it hardly resembles a festival. Festivals are generally events staged by a local community where people come together to celebrate some aspect of culture — music in this case. But the caravan appears to be a series of concerts by various assemblages of local and international musicians, many of whom are not yet identified, in shifting locations across the world.  The original peace caravan was scheduled to tour from February to September 2013, beginning with its “Africa Caravan” in Kobenni, Mauritania and ending with a “United Nations Caravan” (no location specified). In between, it would tour the Middle East, US, Europe, and Southeast Asia. For security reasons, however, it changed one location of its African tour from the Oursi desert in northeastern Burkina Faso to a site in the African “brousse” at roughly 40 Km east of Ouagadougou. The Africa caravan is divided into an “East Caravan” and a “West Caravan”. The East and West carry separate artist rosters obviously, and they split up and regroup to perform in different locations. For example, the East is scheduled to perform in Tamaransset, Algerie and Niamey, Niger; The West Caravan has a separate show in Bamako (sponsored by the famous Malian artist Oumou Sangaré, who was appointed FAO ambassador of peace in 2003.) It also travels to other places without the East Caravan, including one day at the Niger River Festival in Segou. Details of what artists will belong to what Caravan and when and where they will perform are available on the Festival au Desert website. But the artist roster of other African and international artists for both Caravans are yet to be announced. If this isn’t confusing enough, here’s yet another twist: tourists can only join the West Caravan.

Returning to the confusion surrounding the Niger River Festival — its location, as I mentioned earlier, remains in question. That’s due to recent terrorist gains in southern Mali. Marisa and I are waiting to hear the updated official report from Festival spokesman, Attaher Maiga, but we fear the event might be canceled altogether. Back on August 30th, 2012, I posted an extensive blog post on the reaction to the shocking “ban on music” declared by the Islamists militants in the north. In my interview with the director of the Niger River Festival, Mr. Daffe, he expressed confidence that the 2013 9th edition would be one of the “best ever” such events — despite problems brewing in the region. He was also excited about the possibilities of his festival helping negotiate peace in Mali, hosting the Desert Festival’s  Caravan of northern artists as its “Guest Festival” and honoring Timbuktu as its “Guest City.”

Both Festivals are scheduled to take place in February. The Desert Festival’s African Caravan is due to hit Segou, Mali on February 14th and the Niger River Festival is scheduled for February 12 – 17th. But with the ongoing political crisis in the country, nothing seems certain. Really, doesn’t it make sense to cancel these festivals, given the worsening of Mali’s political crisis right now? French and ECOWAS troops are currently storming Northern Mali to take it back from the Islamic groups that now occupy it– Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) For the sake of Marisa’s safety, and all other tourists and musicians considering attending these festivals, staying home may be the safe and prudent thing to do. The unfortunate prospect is if one Festival folds, the other will likely follow suit. And if the Niger River Festival cancels, Southern Mali will (oddly) reinforce the silencing of Malian music northern Islamists are forcing on the north. Can the dream of a music festival negotiating peace in a war zone still come true in Mali? Will the Niger River Festival take place despite the threats and the danger? We shall see.








Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

2 responses to “Mali’s Music Festivals on the Brink”

  1. […] hosts two incredible music festivals, the Niger River Festival and the epic Festival au Desert // and both festivals were scheduled to take place in February around the same time as Sauti za […]

  2. I truly like all kinds of songs and the category you have covered in this post is most interest and to my exclusive music tastes. Cathy Dennis



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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