Sahel of a good song.

Coulibaly is a common West African name.[1] A couple of ambitious hustlers named Coulibaly set up a Bambara “kingdom” in the 17th and 18th Centuries on the Niger River. The village of Segou served as the capital. Another ambitious hustler named Ngolo toppled the last of the Coulibalys in 1750. He and his son built up a larger and more solid kingdom that lasted until the late 19th Century, although bits and pieces were falling off for decades. In 1861 a jihadist hustler named El Hadj Umar Tall added the remnants to his own empire. Then, in 1890 an ambitious French hustler named Louis Archinard showed with troops, shot a bunch of opponents, and added the whole thing to the French Empire. Segou today has about 130,000 people living in and around it. There’s farming and fishing and crafts that are sold in the markets. There are a great many low lying buildings constructed of mud-block. Pretty much what one would expect a very arid land adjacent to a river. There’s a big steel bridge over that river. Poorly maintained roads run south to Bamako and north to Timbuktu.

One of the many attractions of Segou is the “Festival on the Niger” held in February each year.[2] If you want to hear the best of Sahelian music live, the Segou festival is second only to the annual “Festival of the Desert” held west of Timbuktu.

About three years ago a joint rebellion by Tuareg tribesmen and a small number of local Islamists swept over the northern part of Mali. The Islamists turned out to be against guitars (as well as many other things). Half a million people fled from the northern part of the country. The French—channeling Louis Archinard—weren’t taking this guff. A bunch of heavily-armed hard cases from the Marines and Foreign Legion paratroopers showed up. Soon thereafter, the leaders of the Tuareg-Islamist rebellion decided to take in the sights in remote areas of Libya or Algeria.

Meanwhile, the “Festival in the Desert” got cancelled for several years, what with the danger of getting shot and all. The “Festival on the River” took place in February 2014. Then the West African Ebola outbreak briefly edged into Mali in Fall 2014. So, that was concerning. In December 2014 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Mali Ebola-free. Deep sighs of relief followed among many people. Among them were the producers of the “Festival on the River.” They announced that the show was on for February 2015.

One of the people in the audience in 2014 was Josh Hammer (1957- ). Hammer got a first-rate education (Horace Mann School, BA in English from Princeton University), then went into journalism. He did well at this and became the bureau chief for Newsweek in a series of places: Nairobi (1993-1996), South America (1996–1997, Los Angeles (1997–2001), Berlin (2000–2001), and Jerusalem (2001-2003). In 2001 he and his cameraman were “detained” (i.e. kidnapped) by Hamas gunmen. He has written about a wide range of subjects and places in a sensitive way.[3] One of his interests is the music of the Sahel. So, having made the pilgrimage to Segou, who does he recommend?

Ten minute film giving views of Segou, with a nice sound track.


Salif Keita.

Khaira Arby.

Achmed Ag Kaedi and Amanar.

Tinariwen (band).

Sekouba Bambino.

Stelbee (Burkina Faso).

[1] If you’re scratching you head trying to place the name, Amedy Coulibaly was the Frenchman of Malian origins who shot a police woman and seized hostages in Paris a little while back.

[2] Joshua Hammer, “Along the Niger, the Beat of the Sahel,” NYT, 18 January 2015.

[3] A lot of biographical detail is hard to find. Bits and pieces found on the internet suggest that his father also was a foreign correspondent; that the parents’ marriage broke up; and that the life itineraries of human beings can take odd courses. His book about his younger brother’s journey to intense religious belief sounds fascinating.

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