French Festivals Go African

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From Angoulême or Nancy to Nice, Montpellier and Sète, 2002 has really fixed African artists as a permanent feature of all the major jazz and « world » music festivals.

If we were to hold a 20th birthday celebration in honour of this « africanisation », the cake would have to go to Christian Mousset, who was the first organiser to break out and introduce Africa and the Caribbean into Jazz à Angoulème back in 1982. The festival’s tireless traveller followed his instinct, including groups he’d fallen for, greatly contributing to the French public’s discovery off South African music first, then Mandingue, music from the Indian Ocean and Portuguese-speaking countries. Since then, Jazz à Angoulême has logically been renamed Musiques Métisses. However, this title contains a somewhat debatable concept (that of cultural blending, or métissage, in French) since by nature all music is the product of cultural blending. Nevertheless, this notion is not really an more questionable than that of « world music » since what music is not « from the world »? In any case, Angoulême has long become an obligatory stop for all Africanist music lovers – and a veritable endurance course, with three no less than three concerts on at any given time. This year 25 of the 31 participating groups were from Africa or the Indian Ocean. Two did not make it – Faadah Kawtal (Cameroun) and the Rumbanella Band (Congo) – for lack of visas.
West Africa in the limelight
The most awaited group was Guinea’s legendary Bembeya Jazz National, which had previously been to Angoulême in 1985.They had been in retirement for some 15 years before Christian Mousset relaunched them, shutting them up for a week in the local recording studio to record a first album for his new label, Marabi. Over the course of two fiery concerts, Bembeya masterfully reviewed their old repertoire, leaving plenty of room for their gifted lead guitarist and musical director (nicknamed Diamond Fingers) to excel. My one regret may have been that none of the three singers had a solo role, despite the fact that the group’s ex-leader, Sekouba Bambino, was in France at the same time. Mandingue music was represented by Mali’s pleasant pop duo Amadou and Mariam, effervescent Boubacar Traoré and moving griot guitarist Habib Koité. Guinea was represented by a spectacular Nyamakalas (griot) troupe, the stunning Soumous ensemble, in which a dozen women from the Orchestre National incarnate the tradition of the legendary Beninese Amazon warriors.
Benin’s Gangbé Brass Band constituted the biggest surprise of the 2002 festival but more about them later. This vibrant ensemble (brass and percussions) performed a jazz interpretation of polyphonies and polyrythms inherited from Fon vodun and other ethnic groups in Benin.
Alas! This region also provided a very cruel disappointment in the form of Nigerian musician, King Sunny Adé, who proved to be a mere shadow of his former self. He performed with a smaller group, with the pseudo-Hawaiian pedal steel guitar that once rendered his music uniquely charming. His poor imitation of « juju music » whose swirls were once so entrancing has now taken on an exasperating monotony.
On the other hand, the great leader Windo Kolosoy and his Kinese group, Victoria Bakolo Miziki, put on an outstanding demonstration of old-fashioned rumba. Their humane, upbeat performance is a lesson to those commercially-oriented technocrates pushing their Ndombolo mish-mash.
Two breath-taking Algerian singers – Hasna El Becharia and Souad Massi – were testimony to North Africa’s wealth of female musical talent, with music very often similar to that of their Sahelian sisters.
Angoulême also hosted two groups from Louisianna. Contrary to expectations, Clifton Chénier Junior, son of the genial black Cajun accordionist, gave a very « pale » performance compared to frenetic Steve Riley, who was supposed to represent the « white » face of this entrancing musical form. This was almost as surprising as the uninterrupted wave of emotion generated by « white » Reunionese musician, Daniel Waro, during his fabulous recital. Waro is possibly the greatest current interpreter of Reunionese « Maloya » music, who’s origins go back to slavery.
Therefore, we could say that the term « musiques métisses » is gradually taking on a certain legitimacy…
The Riviera sways to the rhythm of the m’balax
Jazz may indeed be the first officially « métisse » music style but the Nice Jazz Festival – it was founded in 1948, making it the oldest jazz festival in the world – is pushing the boundaries, and it is not just the purists who say so. There was hardly a single jazz group stricto sensu present this year. And the Jam Session, which used to be a sacred rite for jazzmen (Nice was a veritable paradise) has been relegated to « after hours » parties in the bars in their luxury hotels. These days, the Nice Jazz Festival is one of the most eclectic of « world music » festivals – and one of the most open to African musicians. This is rather paradoxical given that an ultra right-wing council reputed for its distrust of immigrants runs the festival. Viviane Sicnasi has taken over as Director of Jazz à Nice from French joker Michel Leeb. She has transformed the festival into a veritable melting pot of musics on the fringes of jazz. The security guards – a charming gang of little Hitlers and hoodlums – were obviously out of tune with the stunning setting in the Parc de Cimiz, where magnificent 100-year-old olives seem to be mere saplings compared with the ancient Roman arenas they huddle around.
Youssou N’Dour, who had had to refuse in 2001 for a lack of suitable dates, was this year’s superstar guest. His concert was musically unsurprising but hundreds of Senegalese trinket sellers from all over the French Riviera came dressed to the nines to dance the m’balax. Sadly, the Malians did not make the trip to applaud Mamani Keita and Marc Minelli’s touching duo. On the other hand, there was a throng for Bonga and Angélique Kidjo, whose outstanding ability to reach a wide public is some compensation for her « baba-funk » delirium. There was a huge crowd for Tiekn Jah Fakoly, who was invited back this year following a triumphant 2001 performance.
Ismaël Lô and especially Cesaria Evora, who had absolutely marvellous backing, were highly successful too – much to the shame of former tennis player Yannick Noah, who’s sappy lightweight pop attracted a deaf, dumbstruck crowd more interested in clicking disposable cameras than listening to his music. In fact, the best African concert at Nice was by Austrian musician Joe Zawinul who was also the festival’s « jazz alibi ». The genial electronic keyboard pioneer and former pianist for Miles Davis was the founder of the legendary jazz-fusion group, Weather Report. On 9 July he celebrated his 70th birthday, shortly after a tour in Senegal that he confided to me as being one of the most beautiful moments in his musical career. For the past ten years or so, following a very productive collaboration with Salif Keïta, his Zawinul Syndicate has focussed on African and Caribbean rhythms. Cameroonian bass player Richard Bona has replaced fellow Cameroonian, Etienne Mbappé and Ivoirian drummer, Paco Séry, who Zawinul considers to be the « best drummer in the entire world », stole the concert. He stunned the audience with his sanza solos – he has increasing mastery of the delicate thumb piano despite it not being terribly common in his region.
Other great moments during Nice 2002 featured music solidly bridging the divide between Africa and the diaspora. These included the world’s oldest Gospel group, The Blind Boys of Alabama, which is now into its 80th year! Inimitable blues men such as BB King and Little Milton were also present, as was the very subtle French West Indian pianist, Mario Canonge. Canonge’s current group provided a fascinating amalgamation of the entire range of French West Indian music from Biguine to Zouk Love.
There were too many African concerts in this year’s summer festivals to fit into a single issue of Africultures. However, as I write, Mory Kanté; Kalone (Casamance), Minanga (Gabon), N’Java (Madagascar) and Tinariwen (Touaregs from Mali) are all expected to perform at the festival on the Crozon Peninsula. Unfortunately, I cannot be everywhere at once. I was in Sète (South Western Mediterranean coast of France) the other night, where a thick crowd was packed into the outdoor Théâtre de la Mer. The setting was fantastic, with a backdrop of fishing boats chugging quietly past behind the stage! For the past six years a non-profit association has run the Fiesta Latina in Sète. The association’s Salsa-mad director, José Bel, was quick to realise that Africa had to be a part of the event, given that Brazilians, Cubans and other Afro Latin Americans still honour the Yoruba gods. He was right – the audience went wild over what was by no means a « Latino » concert. French DJ Frédéric Galliano concocted a seductive combination of Techno and Griot music with the African Divas, featuring two female singers – one Malian, the other a Peul from Senegal (which is an event in itself), providing an interesting contrast between two very different singing styles. They were accompanied by the kora and balafon. For most of the spectators this was their first « African » concert and the effect was stunning, with people surging towards the stage to dance. Everywhere, in fact, the meeting between the new generation and African music has become more physical and more spontaneous than ever before, probably due to the influence of more relaxed styles like funk, rap and techno.
Festivals and Rituals
This change in attitude was also very noticeable in the French audience’s reaction to the Nuits du Bwiti festival, which was without a doubt the biggest event of this « African » summer. The Radio-France Montpellier festival diverged from the usual fare of hot releases and tour opportunities that is served up at such events. Their only guests were from one of the Gabonese Mitsogho communities whose ancestral religion (still very much alive today) is one of the most « musical » and spectacular in the world. Their ritual ceremony is based on the use of a potion made from the roots of the Iboga plant, which has highly hallucinogenic properties. The ceremony is led by a fascinating music in which the Ngombi 8-string harp is the main instrument. Their extremely acrobatic dances involve flaming torches whose cleansing properties would appear to render the participants insensitive to pain.
The two Nuits de Bwiti drew thousands of people to a clearing, at the centre of which the ebanza, or traditional forest temple, was erected. Even for people like myself who had experienced such ceremonies in Africa, the atmosphere gradually became so intimate that it was hard to remember that it was only a show being performed thousands of kilometres from the region where the ritual is normally held. Everyone danced in the moonlight without any fear of being burnt. After sunrise, as I returned to my hotel still under the influence of the hypnotic strains of the harp music, I realised that African music deserves much more than simply being moulded into Western festival rituals. In the future African musicians should try and capture the magic of their music.
In any case, the show goes on. The Nancy Jazz Pulsations are hosting Tony Allen, (Fela’s former drummer, afro-beat, Nigeria), Galliano and his African Divas, Malawi jazz singer Malia, and especially Senegal’s excellent Orchestra Baobab, which – like Bembeya from Guinea – has recently made a comeback after a long break. Never before has Africa had such a strong presence in French music festivals.

///Article N° : 5615

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