Music has always been part of the commonly shared culture found in the geographical region of west Africa, and the region has produced, in my view, some of the most talented and influential artists of music history. For millennia, the likes of the Jembe, Kora and Balafon musical instruments have influenced much of the music that we hear today on our radios.
For example, blues music has always been linked to the deep south of the United States, but have you ever wondered where the origins of blues lie? Look no further than West Africa. During the 400 plus years of slavery, the populations who were forcefully kidnapped from their homelands strived to hold on to their cultural roots, and through that, traditional music lived on. Various research projects into the musical origins of blues trace the chords back to traditional instruments such as the ‘Kora’, played by a professional caste of praise singers, called griots or jails, for the rich and aristocracy, and the ‘Akonting’, a folk lute of the Jola tribe of Senegambia, a clear predecessor to the American banjo in its playing style.
As a result of findings in musical research and a renewed interest in the rich local heritage found in West Africa, this style of music has become more and more popular in the West and the names of Amadou & Mariam, Tinariwen, Toumani Diabaté and Vieux Farka Touré are rivalling the most famous of musicians to have set foot on the stages of the big festivals in the UK. Classed as ‘World Music’, a term which I personally find derogative because I feel that it detracts from the real origins of the music and throws all music which is not 'Western' into one basket, this West African genre has found its way in to the line-ups for Glastonbury, WOMAD, the Big Chill and the Isle of Wight festival to mention but a few. This, in turn, has increased media attention and provided marketing opportunities for lesser known festivals in these musicians own countries.
Move over Glastonbury! Make way for the likes of ‘Festival in the desert’ near Essakane and the fabled city of Timbuktu, or ‘Ségou festival’ celebrated on the banks of the Niger River, probably the longest river in the whole of Africa. What better way to experience the ancient melodies of West African blues than to be in the Sahara desert listening to Tinariwen, sipping traditional tea with a group of Tuareg herders who have travelled over the Sahara desert to perform their music with others.
Roberto, a regular to the ‘Festival au Desert’ (the French term is commonly used as Mali is partly French speaking) or ‘Essakane music festival’, recounts some of the unforgettable moments from his last trip: “I remember Amadou & Mariam, who are now world-renowned, sitting at 3 am beside the stage with their sun glasses on waiting for their turn to play. They were like two kids waiting for their exam.”
The atmosphere of conviviality also marked him, as he recounts: “Beside our tent, Swedish girls were singing Swedish songs accompanied by local Tuareg drummers. That set the scene for the theme of this festival: playing together, no matter what nationality, to produce quality music.”
But these festivals, even though the most well know, are not the only ones in the whole of West Africa. In nearly every country, for nearly every season, festivals exist to celebrate a multitude of events. From the St. Louis Jazz Festival in Senegal to the Voodoo rites festivals in Togo and Benin, from the Ashanti Royal Ekisadiwae festival in Ghana to the Dogons Sirius Star celebration in Southern Mali, your thirst for new and unique experiences could never be quenched, and you would need a life-time to discover all of them.
However, every life-changing journey starts with the first step, and there are a variety of tour operators who do offer travel options to experience these exotic and awe-inspiring events. You can find a few examples of tours on the West Africa Discovery web portal. Not only do these give you the opportunity to experience the festivals first hand and in the most genuine way possible, but they also work towards providing economic benefits to local communities in the destinations whilst advocating the use of ‘Responsible Tourism Practices’ to minimise the negative effects of tourism on the local cultural, historical and natural heritage.
If you would like more information on specific festivals in the west African geographical region, or other information concerning local cultural, historical or natural heritage and holiday ideas which can give you the opportunity to experience these first hand, email mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Until then, enjoy this great video showing behind-the-scenes at the ‘Festival du Desert’.