Abene is well known around the world in West African drumming circles for its Festivalo that falls after Christmas and over New Year each year. Although I’ve been here two years, this was my first as I’ve always been away in this period. Knowing how Abene is for the rest of the year, it was an extraordinary week for me. Whereas normally you can count the number of tourists on a hand with some missing fingers, all of the hotels and campements were full, restaurants (and pop up temporary restaurants) were all bustling, the beaches busy and there was generally a great vibe. There was a group of Brits doing music workshops and hundreds of other tourists of all nationalities – I met Chilean, Polish, Americans and Mexicans.
I was lucky that as the photographer, I had front row seats for every event. Each evening, Khady, Gulliver and I would wander along to the village centre after eating, take our position, greet the many villagers we know and then have a perfect view. Khady even took to the stage a couple of times to dance to the music.
Everything kicked off on Boxing day with an opening ceremony consisting of speeches from various officials and politicians. African festivals always seem to do this – I remember sitting on the dunes outside of Timbuktu with everyone trying to stay awake as a man droned on, when all we wanted to do was hear some desert blues. I snuck out to see a procession of drummers and dancers (from Wakily) through the village, whipping up the bystanders into a frenzy. Much more fun.
The villages Spanish cultural centre, Zarabene, ran daily activities as well as an exhibition of local art throughout the week. Highlights included children’s bicycle races and traditional wrestling (lutte), where chunky men wrapped in multiple leather gris gris stomped and bellowed to drums before fighting each other.
The main performances commenced each evening and continued until the early hours, after which an African disco took over. Makeshift stalls outside sold coffee and baguettes with omelettes or meat stew. Local people would play for free before the main acts, such as Booglecho, my friend who plays the bongo – this is not a drum, but a calabash (a melon sized gourd) with four metal saw blades nailed on top, which one plucks whilst tapping a beat. One of the best “pre-show” acts was Peter Tosh Coly, who sang in a beautiful voice to a backing track. Apparently he regularty performs for the Gambian president and I realised I’d met him earlier in the year at an initiation ceremony to which I’d been invited, in the middle of nowhere.
The main acts were all, with perhaps one exception, excellent. They were mostly djembe troupes who proved beyond doubt that this is a highly musical genre and isn’t “just noise” as some people may think. Each group put on a spectacle, often with some theatre following the festivals theme – motivation of the youth of Abene to care for their environment. Although the diola are known for understanding nature and living in tune with it, the notion of not throwing rubbish away hasn’t really caught on, and no one seems to care about rubbish spoiling a beautiful landscape. “This is Africa” they say, if you say anything. Come to think of it, that seems to be the answer to everything, good or bad. Like much of the developing world, until recently everything came wrapped up in palm leaves or other natural products – some say that is progress. Once, I was in a public taxi, sat next to the window. An old man handed me a big wodge of plastic to throw out, so I put it in my pocket. I just couldn’t throw it, despite their bewilderment. On one day the village gathered to collect all the rubbish, but whether it makes a big difference remains to be seen. Khady saves all the hair that I pull off my hairbrush, but that’s for different reasons – she says if an enemy gets hold of it, they can perform voodoo on me. Anyway, I digress…
To be continued.