Mali has a unique and deeply imbedded musical tradition dating back hundreds of years. Bordered by Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Burkino Faso, Guinea and Senegal, it is a vast, landlocked country, parched and arid, extremely poor, and difficult to navigate as a traveller. Yet aesthetically Mali is spectacular: dramatic cliffscapes, huge skies, the thread of the River Niger which weaves through the country, an unmistakable Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, the most celebrated example being the Great Mosque of Djenne. Perhaps what stands Mali apart most, however, is a distinct and delicately preserved cultural identity…Read More
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Sitting in a classroom at the University of Lome, a discussion is underway with one of the tutors about his recent encounter with a “djinn”. He was quick to explain to me that “in Togo you never believe in just one thing. We might be Christian or Muslim but there is always something else.” "Vodun", as it’s known in Togo and Benin, was a theme which would present itself time and again in the coming months in trance ceremonies, festivals, shamans, fetishes and rites of passage.
This is a world where people are connected deeply to the spirits of their ancestors and households very often keep shrines designed to protect these deities. It may be un-centralized but Vodun is still is a full belief system which bears no resemblance to the negative connotations of witchcraft in the west. In Benin it is classified as an official religion and it has its own cosmology, set of healing practises, symbols, rituals, divinities and moral guidelines.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Lome’s Akodessawa Fetish Market with its rows and rows of dead animal skulls, hides and skins piled up on tables. Voodoo priests reside in huts where it is believed that they consult with deities. Using different talismans, herbs and animal parts, they concoct remedies for all manner of ailments. Though certainly a tourist destination – a clever idea launched by Beninese businessmen – it still sets the scene for an omnipresent religious and cultural identity. To unravel anything with greater depth takes time, patience and a very good guide.
"La Prise de la Pierre Sacrée", or "Epe Ekpe", is the annual festival in Glidji whereby the colour of a sacred stone tells the fortune of the coming year. The stone is retrieved from a sacred forest by a high priest who interprets its colour. White represents abundance, black is destruction and famine, red is for war, blue is abundance. This was my first experience watching performers enter a deep trance and it was an explosion of gesticulation, singing, drumming, and of course the spell-binding trance where dancers fling their heads back, eyes roll to the back of their heads, movements become wilder and more animated to the crescendo of drums…
Each year on 10th January the Ouidah Festival takes place in Benin – this is the largest, most accessible, and some might say “staged” of Benin’s Vodun events, but it is certainly a good place to start. Ouidah is really the voodoo capital of Benin and hosts many different ceremonies throughout the year. It is also extremely important for its role in the slave trade. The foreboding “Door of No Return” is a monumental arched gateway which signifies the last place hundreds and thousands of people would have seen before being forced onto boats slavery boats – many of those bound for Brazil.
There’s the amazingly colourful, vibrant Geledé festival, dedicated to Mother Earth or Iyà Nlà as she is known locally and is characterized by the beautifully-crafted masks worn by dancers accompanied by singers and drummers. The festival is an ode to Yoruba heritage and includes the symbolic use of animal figures such as birds and serpents.
The traditional Zangbeto ceremony wards off evil spirits and is led by a secret society of mask wearers who cannot reveal their identity. This was one of the most intriguing aspects for me – the secrecy, sacred traditions passed down through birth right, that as a tourist you are exposed to just a fraction of the depth of this belief system. These destinations are not for the faint-hearted, they demand resilience and patience, but from a cultural, musical, and religious standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to think of anywhere more fascinating.
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Vieux Farka Toure is a Malian blues guitarist of great international acclaim. He is also the son of late Ali Farka Toure, a true master guitarist and one of Mali’s greatest bluesmen. Having initially defied his father’s wishes by becoming a musician, he finally received the long-awaited nod of approval, when they collaborated together on tracks featured on Vieux’s first album.Read More
There is something thoroughly exhilarating about travelling in West Africa. It bares very little resemblance to the well-established safari circuits of East and Southern Africa, but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in joie de vivre with some of the best music, art, culture & food on the continent. Lagos & Accra are both dynamic cities pulsating with creative energy and buzz. With young initiatives such as the first Lagos Biennial, Art X Lagos and the Chale Wote street art festival, they are fast cementing their positions as emerging contemporary art capitals of the world. Lagos has its own highly credible Fashion Week with hugely successful labels such as Maki Oh favoured by the likes of Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, and Beyoncé. Concept store Alara, designed by Sir David Adjaye, has changed the face of high end shopping with its carefully-selected combination of international & African designers. Whilst La Maison in Accra, the brainchild of Nada Moukarzel, has been compared to a Ghanaian version of Milan’s 10 Corso Como.
Gone are the days of looking to Europe for culinary influence. Current trends have seen a return to traditional local ingredients and a modern twist on home-grown recipes. Accra – with Lagos following suit - now has a happening restaurant scene with some very stylish places to eat & drink. They are both entrepreneurial hubs, evolving fast, yet still holding on to their own very distinct identities. A wave of young Ghanaians and Nigerians are now moving back to their familial homelands from NYC and London as there are great opportunities. Yes, these cities are full of contrast, frustrating to manoeuvre, sometimes overwhelming, but you’ll never endure a dull moment.
And lest we forget about music, this really is an absolute highlight for any trip to West Africa. Reggae, rap, hip hop, and Afrobeat are of course popular in Accra and Lagos, with the latter also boasting an amazing jazz scene. Ever-evolving “hiplife” is the dominant musical force in Ghana and fuses highlife with elements of hip hop. I could write an entire thesis on how electrifying and infectious the music of this region is.
We love promoting these dynamic cities, their art, shopping and music scenes, sense of concordance between old and new, traditional & contemporary. Contact us at email@example.com to uncover the buzz of modern day West Africa.
To imagine Mali without music is like trying to picture a world stripped of colour. It signifies a cultural black hole, removal of a heartbeat, destruction of an entire identity. To quote Manny Ansar, director of the Festival in the Desert: “Everything is transmitted in Mali through music, through poetry. We enjoy life through music”.Read More