You don’t pair the greatest young harpist in Wales with one of the most innovative kora players from West Africa for the purposes of relaxation. Their music is too deep, full-blooded and fragile for that.
All the musicians I spoke to agreed; Mali without music would be like Egypt without cotton, a bird without wings, a man without a soul. “I’m a Muslim, but Sharia isn’t my thing,” says Rokia Traore, one of Mali’s most famous international stars. “If I couldn’t go up on stage anymore, I would cease to exist. And without music, Mali will cease to exist.”
What’s more extraordinary however is Bombino’s fame at home. He’s become a bona fide head-turning airtime-hogging star in his own country, not just amongst the Touareg, who mainly live in Niger’s northern deserts, but amongst the youth of the entire nation. That’s something that no other Touareg artists has ever managed to do, not even Tinariwen.
Ibrahim battles through the show, smiling only once. His grave immobile presence is like a challenge to the hip bubbling New York crowd. To do what? To imagine a simplicity and a silence that their city will never know. It almost feels as if, for just a few minutes, Ibrahim’s challenge has been accepted, and endless silence of the desert has descended on us all.
Last year, the Festival on the Niger had been cancelled at the last minute. French transport planes full of soldiers and hardware had landed in Bamako only two weeks before the festival was due to start. Now peace was back. So was music. The jihadists tried to ban all music except Quranic chanting in the north of Mali. But it just came back like Whack-a-mole. How could it not?
In February 2014, I was invited to The Festival on the Niger in Segou, Mali. This is a selection of some of the photos I took. I also wrote an article which is posted on this site. In a nutshell, those four days on the banks of the old Niger were a blessed chance to renew my love for Mali, with eyes and mind as open as I could make them to the full gamut of joy, pride, frustration and struggle that I saw. Many thanks to Mamou Daffé, Marisa Segala and whole team at the Festival for giving me this unforgettable gift.