Dance wave grips Mali

Sekou Keita’s well-chore­ographed TV cam­paign res­ur­rects tra­di­tional rou­tines to un­qual­i­fied suc­cess in the coun­try

Daily Dispatch - - Features -

All 3,000 seats in the cav­ernous Palace of Cul­ture in Ba­mako had been snapped up, and the mood was at fever pitch as the TV dance com­pe­ti­tion reached its cli­max.

The three fi­nal­ists took to the floor one by one, danc­ing along­side a celebrity – a for­mat fa­mil­iar to view­ers of tal­ent shows around the world.

But here’s the dif­fer­ence: the three hope­fuls each had to per­form a tra­di­tional dance from a re­gion of Mali that was not their own.

To out­siders, the for­mat may seem odd, but in the land­locked Sa­hel state of Mali, the show has been a rag­ing suc­cess.

And it has bred a des­per­ately-needed sense of unity in a coun­try bur­dened by ji­hadist vi­o­lence and eth­nic ten­sions.

The com­pe­ti­tion is the brain­child of dancer and chore­og­ra­pher Sekou Keita.

Just six years ago, he was won­der­ing how he could re­verse the de­cline of tra­di­tional dance in Mali, a coun­try whose mu­sic is now achiev­ing global fame.

“Our dances are so var­ied, we have a num­ber of eth­nic groups – we’re very lucky to have such cul­tural wealth,” he said.

But the sad thing is that all of Mali’s dancers have one thing in com­mon, he said.

“If you ask them to do the coupe-de­cale, a modern dance from Ivory Coast – which I have noth­ing against, by the way – they all know how to do it.

“If they go to [Sene­gal’s cap­i­tal] Dakar, they all know how to dance the sabar,” he said.

“But they don’t know the tra­di­tional dances of their own coun­try.”

From this came his idea for a pro­gramme that ex­plored an­cient cul­tural roots and built bridges across eth­nic di­vides – “Faso Don” or “Dances of the Coun­try” in the Bam­bara lan­guage. Over six weeks, TV au­di­ences shared the fate of eight young men and women from dif­fer­ent re­gions, who shared a house “Big Brother-style” in Ba­mako, the cap­i­tal.

Each week they per­formed be­fore an au­di­ence and the TV cam­eras, their num­bers pro­gres­sively fall­ing as a com­peti­tor was elim­i­nated by a vote by the pub­lic and the jury.

The fi­nal took place last week­end be­fore an au­di­ence ex­hil­a­rated by the ground­break­ing, cross-cul­tural per­for­mances.

Dressed in tra­di­tional cos­tumes, the fi­nal­ists per­formed one dance from their re­gion and one from an­other re­gion, ac­com­pa­nied by Malian stars such as mu­si­cian Bassekou Kouy­ate and singers Habib Koite and Ou­mou San­gare.

Among the fi­nal­ists, was Mo­hamed Kas­sogue, a mem­ber of the Do­gon group who hails from the cen­tral re­gion of Mopti.

His dream of danc­ing ini­tially sparked a scep­ti­cal re­sponse from his fam­ily but in the end, Billy El­liot-style, their re­sis­tance crum­bled and they be­came a source of “huge sup­port and pride in me”, he said.

“They al­ways call me to con­grat­u­late me,” Kas­sogue said. “They now see that danc­ing is use­ful, it’s not some­thing bad.”

Kas­sogue, who donned dra­matic masks for one of his dances, ended up com­ing sec­ond. The win­ner was Rokia Diallo, a woman from the Fu­lani pas­toral com­mu­nity in Sikasso, south­ern Mali. Dressed in a flow­ing gown and a veil, she in­ter­preted the takamba, a sin­u­ous, sen­su­ous dance from the Song­hai group in the far north of the coun­try.

“Faso Don” has not just re­vived in­ter­est in gen­er­a­tions-old re­gional dances in Mali. It has also re­in­forced mu­tual re­spect in a coun­try whose rep­u­ta­tion for hos­pi­tal­ity is trag­i­cally be­ing sup­planted by one for vi­o­lence.

The eighth-largest coun­try in Africa and one of the poor­est in the world, Mali has around 20 eth­nic groups, rang­ing from Arabs to the Bam­bara and the Song­hai, each draw­ing on their own lan­guage and cus­toms.

Six years ago, prob­lems flared when Tuareg separatists in northern Mali staged an up­ris­ing which ji­hadists then ex­ploited to take over key cities.

The ex­trem­ists were routed in a French-led mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in 2013 but large stretches of the coun­try re­main out of con­trol.

Chronic in­sta­bil­ity has in­flamed com­pe­ti­tion for re­sources, es­pe­cially be­tween Fu­lani pas­toral­ists and Do­gon farm­ers in the cen­tre of the coun­try. Across the coun­try, around 600 civil­ians have died in “in­ter-com­mu­nal vi­o­lence” since the start of the year, ac­cord­ing to UN fig­ures.

Pic­tures: SE­BASTIEN RIEUSSEC / AFP

GOT THE MOVES: Fi­nal­ist of the Faso Don danc­ing con­test, Mo­hamed Kas­sogue, per­forms on stage dur­ing the film­ing of the TV show re­cently in the Malian cap­i­tal Ba­mako. All 3,000 seats in the cav­ernous Palace of Cul­ture in Ba­mako had been snatched up, and the mood was at fever pitch as the TV dance com­pe­ti­tion reached its cli­max.

RAV­ING ABOUT IT: Per­form­ers carry out their dance rou­tine dur­ing the film­ing of a TV show by Sekou Keita who is re­viv­ing tra­di­tional dance, in the Malian cap­i­tal Ba­mako.

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