Yesterday was the last day of the Segou Music Festival. It's the second largest festival in Mali after The Festival In The Desert (which traditionally happens outside Timbuktu... in the desert). It's one of the major tourist events in Mali and people come from all over the world to enjoy the sights and sounds. Fortunately for me, I call Segou my "second home" in Mali, so I've been able to experience all the festival has to offer and see the before and after effects it has on the city.
The festival is "small" by US standards, but very unique. The main stage is set up on a barge on the Niger River. There are pavilions set up for various vendors and aid groups. An exhibition hall displaying art from all over the world. Cultural exhibition tents where different ethnic groups perform dances. Beer gardens.
One of the main differences that stood out to me was the aggressive tactic adopted by the street vendors. Some have booths set up in the festival. Some walk around inside and outside the festival grounds. Some have booths set up outside the festival (so they don't have to pay a booth fee). They don't wait for you to come to them. They come to you. "My friend, you buy my postcards". "Bonjour Monsieur, you see my nice cloth". "Ttssstt. I have the marijuana. How much you buy?" (For the record, I didn't buy "the marijuana". It's illegal)
The street vendors sell all the typical stuff you think of. Wooden carvings. Drums. Earrings. Necklaces. Bracelets. Clothing. Turbans. Ridiculous inflatable animals that come from China. CDs. Sunglasses. Postcards.
There are also a host of women set up outside the festival grounds on the side of the roads selling street food. Common items include fried egg sandwiches, seasoned grilled meat sandwiches, or assorted veggies, fries, beans, etc. Conditions are less than sanitary by US standards. I ordered a grilled meat sandwich the other day. The lady took the meat which was on metal kabobs, put it on the bread, then dipped a spoon into a bowl of raw meat to get some of that tasty raw meat juice for extra flavor. Why did we bother to cook the meat again?...
Inside the actual festival ground there is plenty to see. During the day its mostly just exhibition stuff. Tribal dances. Local musicians. Food. One day there was a boat race on the river using traditional pirogues (canoes). The race was done in two heats. In the first heat two of the five boats sank during the race because the 20 or so men in each boat were paddling so furiously that they inundated their vessels with water. In the second heat there was a boat with a bunch of white foreigners. Of course their boat sank about 20 yards before the finish line. The crowd loved it.
The tribal dances were pretty neat. Lots of different masks and costumes. One group was demonstrating what appeared to be a ritual dance that men do before going out to hunt. They all had shotguns which were loaded with blanks and every now and then one of them would fire a gun in the middle of the crowd. Sure, they were using blank shells... but still, it was a little unnerving at first.
People attended the concert from all over the world. There were plenty of Malians, which I hate to say surprised me a little. I initially thought the crowd would have been composed mostly of foreigners, but actually the majority of people were nationals, which was nice to see. Of course, there were plenty of people from France, Great Britain, the US, and other parts of Europe as well. I also ran into several Peace Corps Volunteers that had made their way from Ghana and Benin. There might have been some Togo folks as well. I can't remember. There were also people from many other West African countries in attendance. This truly is an international festival, even if its not super huge in terms of attendance.
However, there were enough people in town to completely take down the telecommunications infrastructure of the city. For two or three days you couldn't make calls, send texts, or get on the web. A lot of the foreigners were freaking out thinking that something was wrong with their phone in particular. Some of the local Volunteers graciously explained that this problem was a city wide phenomenon, and not isolated to particular individuals.
The nicer restaurants and hotels in the area also changed things up a bit for the festival. Strangely, room prices went up a bit. Restaurant menus also got a lot shorter to make things easier on the cooks. My favorite place in town, lovingly referred to as "The Shack", reduced its menu down to two items. Fish or Beef. No salads. No sandwiches. When my friends and I inquired if we could order from the "regular menu" since we are regulars to this particular establishment and the cook knows us, we were greeted with a rather Seinfeldesque Soup Nazi "no soup for you" response. Clearly the goings-ons of the festival are a source of additional stress for local businessmen.
One thing I found especially interesting about the past week was the placement of one particular beer garden outside the festival grounds. There's not a lot of real estate available on the side of the roads in town, so one intrepid individual thought he would set up a beer garden in the middle of a round point intersection. The concept of having people come to the literal center of a poorly lit, busy intersection median to consume copious amounts of fermented drink seems less than wise to me. But then again, this is just one man's opinion.
In all, I would say the festival was a success. Everyone I was with seemed to have a good time and there was plenty to see and do. So in conclusion, if you happen to be in the Segou area in early February... come check out the music festival. It only costs about $US 140 for all four days for foreigners.
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