Monday, September 27, 2010

World Festival of Black Arts and Culture: December 10-31!

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

It turns out the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, played guitar in a pop band when he was a student. Wade offered this fact, more or less as an aside, during a remarkable press conference at the Grand Hyatt in New York City on September 24. With Angelique Kidjo and Akon at his side, Wade was heralding the approach of the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, an ambitious celebration of African and African diaspora arts, sciences and intellectual pursuits, scheduled to take place in Senegal December 10-31, 2010.

The festival is expansive in every way, including exhibitions, forums, lectures and performances spanning 16 disciplines (cinema, traditional and visual arts, crafts, dance, music, urban culture, design, literature, fashion, photography, theatre, food, architecture, science and technology, and sports).  Events will take place all around Dakar, and in Senegal's second city, Saint-Louis.  There is also a major outreach to the diaspora, to "blacks on all continents," in Wade's phrase.  Brazil is the "guest of honor country," and President Lula da Silva is expected at the opening ceremony.  In his remarks, Wade evoked "the geography of black people" around the world and tied their histories and cultures into the overarching idea of "African renaissance," a dominant theme of his 10-year presidency.  As a wide variety of presentations during this press conference made clear, this will be more than a music festival or cultural symposium.  Artistic Director Kwameh Kwei-Armah said, "This is the day the African renaissance begins to make Africans the leaders of the 22nd century."  

Angelique Kidjo, President Abdoulaye Wade, Akon
"African renaissance" has crucial intellectual and political dimensions.  It is about rescuing lost history, seizing the initiatives represented by the UN's 2015 Milennium Development Goals, ending the spread of AIDS on the continent, and much more.  The festival's forum manager Professor Iba der Thiam said the objective is "not just glorifying ourselves, but reestablishing the truth."  Thiam listed human endeavors that were born in Africa, including "math, law, the calendar, architecture, and science in general."   What is beautiful about this festival's embrace of this all-inclusive package is the primacy of culture, and especially music, in the vision.  The literature on the festival calls it the "third edition."  And we're not talking annual editions.  The "first edition" was held in Dakar in 1966 by then president Léopold Senghor.  And the "second" was the legendary FESTAC festival in Lagos in 1977,  perhaps the biggest and most consequential showcase of African music ever.  

FESTAC was the starting point for Angelique Kidjo's remarks.  She recalled the event as a touchstone moment of her youth.  Paraphrasing Fela Kuti, Kidjo called music "the weapon of peace," and spoke passionately about its importance and power. "I am an artist that has been talking about the impact and the richness that the continent of Africa has given to the world," said Kidjo.  "It started, sadly, with slavery.  We have been brought to many different parts of the world to build the wealth of continents, of countries, instead of building our own continent's wealth.  But what is most important is the music that we brought...  Without the music of the slaves, we wouldn't have the blues, we wouldn't have rock 'n' roll...  So I claim all the music of the world as African.  We are all Africans, and we should be proud of being African."   This sentiment pretty much brought the house down.   

Amazingly, the concerts in this festival will all be free to the public.  They will be ticketed in the interest of crowd control, but there will be no admission fee to hear groups ranging from Akon and Angelique Kidjo to Afropop veterans (Salif Keita, Hugh Masekela, Bembeya Jazz and the Mahotella Queens) to jazz musicians (Marcus Miller, Omar Sosa, Chucho Valdez and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers), reggae (Tiken Jah Fakoly and Alpha Blondy), hip hop (Didier Awadi), and of course Senegal’s favorite sons Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal.  This is only part of the partial list provided at the press conference.  Visit the festival website for updates.  But already the lineup is impressive.  During the festival, one channel of Senegalese television will be dedicated to events, including concert broadcasts, and AV feeds will be offered to other African countries as well.  Organizers spoke of plans to broadcast concerts on massive screens in public locations around the continent, and the world.  

Akon, in his remarks, noted the historic dimensions of this event, and its potential to promote a new, more positive conception of Africa in the world.  Referring to President Wade as "my Papa," Akon said Senegal was the perfect country to host this momentous festival.  "Senegal," he said, "is one of the few African countries that always held peace and always moved forward.  And that was, one, from religion, and two, from entertainment."

Akon with festival organizer Djibril Diallo
Akon is the son of legendary Senegalese percussionist Mor Thiam.   Akon recalled how his father had made sure his kids were born and educated in the United States, so they would have more opportunities.  But Akon's education led him back to Africa, to the realization that his ancestral continent is the true source of so much he learned in American schools and life.   “I make sure that my children grow up not only learning other languages, but they learn their culture," said Akon.  "They learn their history.  They learn their whole way of life, how it began and how it shall be.  I think this festival will be a big step to allowing people who are not familiar with Africa to get a better understanding of what Africa has to offer.”

Inevitably, at this press conference, there were questions about logistics and infrastructure, essentially how easy it would be for foreigners to negotiate such a massive series of events.  Organizers offered assurances that festival-goers would get plenty of help with transportation, translation, guidance and security.   There was also a deeper question, from Afropop's Sean Barlow, about how the festival is being "marketed" to Americans.  Clearly, with this press conference occurring just eleven weeks before the opening ceremony, the publicity campaign is getting a late start.  The message that all are welcome comes through loud and clear, but while millions will experience festival events through media, YouTube and other outlets, a relatively few lucky souls will likely pick up from the US and head for Dakar in time.   Not a problem, said Akon.  “There’s no particular way to market something like this," he said.  "This has to be a situation where you yourself have to want to learn more about Africa and experience this yourself.”  At the same time, the pop superstar voiced a commitment to try to encourage “my generation” to have that curiosity and desire.  

By Mamadou Gomis
As of this writing, the Afropop team does not have a way to attend the World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures.  However, we are open to any offers and ideas...  We also encourage listeners and readers who do attend to share reports and impressions.  Say what you will about African governments, including Senegal's, President Wade deserves praise for devoting significant resources to such a momentous undertaking.  No other contemporary government in Africa has made a similar commitment to culture.  Alas, when asked by Sean Barlow, President Wade noted he would not be taking the stage with his guitar during these concerts, though he still has time to change his mind on that...

By Stéphane Tourné

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