Highlights of the festival included Soliwoulen, for whom my friends husband plays djembe. They played some great music before dancers literally exploded onto the stage – a lion man, a blue faced man, a man on stilts and a woman who danced so hard her breast popped out and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it (as everyone zoomed in on their phone cameras).
Troupe Balante (from the Balante tribe that originates in Guinea Bissau), played loud and complicated rhythms on household objects – oil drums, pestle and mortar and other wooden kitchen appliances. I wasn’t sure if the dog wandering around the stage was part of the act or not. The femmes diola (Diola Women) had a blind bougueur drummer (the bougueur is three large drums with a deep thump to their thwack). Jean Bosco played African pop with a reggae feel – dressed in military garb with waist length dreads and throwing poses towards the crowds, he looked great. Towards the end, there was a stage invasion of young people all bearing branches of greenery as he sang Casamance revolutionary songs.
The Abene chorale are a church group that sang African gospel, complete with djembe, other drums and a guy shaking a jangly garden rake. For the rest of the evening, a group of the men, in black tousers, white shirts and ties (like the morman missionaries I used to laugh at in Eastern Africa and South America) would get up and dance to the other groups in formations.
Paco Diaz played Manjak folk – acoustic based music with Guinea Bissau rooted manjak rhythms. He started with some slow and very melodic tunes, gradually building up intensity. By the time he was duckwalking as the local crazy guy and Ms “Jiggy-jiggy Boom-boom” danced on stage, everyone was entranced.
Dounya Percussion are a group of Guinean musicians based in Abene. Aside from their musical performance which was stunning, they featured a contortionist who literally formed a human belt around one of the dancers. I want one and think they’ll be all the rage on Parisian catwalks this time next year. Another group featured a knife cutter – he actually had a leg deformity (a proper disability, not the product of not performing his job properly). He worked himself into a frenzy before slashing at his arms with a knife, stabbing at himself and ripping the knife out of his mouth as if to tear open his cheek. It was only when zooming in on the photos that I saw he was slicing with the blunt edge of the knife. Khady was aghast at his trickery, but said most knife cutters have magical powers, due to their gris gris and mystical potions. She often tells me her fathers party trick was to cut open his abdomen, pull out his guts and then stuff them back in. Now, that’s a party trick I’d love to learn and beats my paltry stuffing my own fist in my mouth or hammering a 6 inch nail into my nostril.
I mentioned the New Years eve celebrations in a previous post. Sitting around a large bonfire on the beach under the African sky with paper lanterns floating up and various drum groups thrashing away will stay with me forever. It was sublime.
Perhaps the best performance was saved for the final night on the 2nd January. Anyone familiar with djembe will know the Guinean master, Mamady Keita who perfected the art form. He had been in the village for the previous week or so running workshops with drummers from around the world. He was joined by another popular player, Seikou Keita and his nephew Iya. After a rousing speech to develop and progress but never forget your roots, your culture, your tradition, he settled back and let his students perform. I met some of these students afterwards and realised it was the African music equivalent of getting up and playing a show with Springsteen, Dylan or McCartney. When Mamady played he was brilliant, but it was a sign of his modesty and musical generosity that he mainly took a back seat. His intention was to prove to an African audience that white people can have rhythm and play the drums! Afterwards, Khady – who will often politely clap to a toubabs musical attempts and then afterwards tell me it was rubbish – said these toubabs can play and not only that, they were really good.
Legendary Gambian Kora player, Tata Ding Ding, closed the evening and the festival with a melodic slow blues over which he played his virtuoso kora and a young lad dressed like a joker danced manically throughout the performance.
A perfect ending to what some say was the best Abene festival of the nineteen to date.
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