from Folk Roots No. 168 (Vol. 18 No. 12) June 1997, p. 21

Root Salad:  African Spectacles

Lu Edmonds travels to Abidjan for the 1997 MASA.

It happens every other March in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast.  'It' is the MASA or en Franglais the 'Market Arts and Spectacles African.'  Which has nothing to do with Ray Bans (though a good set is essential to protect against the near-equatorial sunshine) and everything about live performance -- theatre, dance and lots and lots of music.

This area of Africa is also home to other French-funded culture biz bashes; Ouagadouguo (Burkina Faso) is good for fans of African film and Togo's Lomé claims the photography slot.  In 1993, MASA started out as a purely Francophone affair and although the involvement of the French through the ACCT remains, this year saw the first inclusion of Albionophone bands from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ghana.  The 1999 edition sees this extend continent-wide, which should finally make MASA a truly pan-African event.

There is little time to visit theatre or dance thanks to 26-plus official music groups on offer and maybe three times as many in the vibrant 'off-MASA' held in both banlieu and the remarkable Ki-Yi culture co-op village out of the centre.  The main venues were the 2000-plus capacity congress hall of the Hotel Ivoire (slightly less impressive than the replica of St. Peter's Rome to be found up-country) and the much nicer 500-plus capacity Cinoche club.  Exclusive, but hey! it's a trade-fair.  Over in the business district at the CCIA centre you have the exhibition and trade-fair area and a courtyard venue for mostly acoustic midday performances.  The whole thing kicked off with a huge stadium gig featuring the likes of Miriam Makeba and Oumou Sangare.

The daytime origami exchange ("Bonjour!  Here's my business card and PR, press-pack, etc...") is fascinating and a great way to get to talk to African music professionals who are all very happy to meet and greet, and for fans of music you get to find out a lot of stuff.  But best brush up on your French!

Apart from restaurant life drinking the very drinkable local Flag beer you can spend hours staring admiringly at the even more desirable Flag plastic tablecloths, trying to decipher the many wonderful slogans.  Eating the very often delicious variations of chicken and rice (beware the escargot; it is not a misprint and really does mean one poor huge enormo-snail) is all for one reason and one reason alone:  getting ready for the evening's music.

Amongst the veritable cornucopia of 30 bands managed in 6 evenings there was just one duffer and 3 that you could have safely gone to the bar for.  All the rest were great.  Criteria are hard to set but let's start with the ones I want to stay in my house forever and Trogode have to be high on the list.  Imagine:  15 citoyens of the former Empire of Central Africa wielding different-sized termite-bored branches which are blow much like a didg but less mystically -- dare one say, more fartily.  This they do to a beat of their own leg-maraccas and the 'driver' who hits 2 old bicycle bells together and guides the chaps, young and old, in winding dances reminisicent of strip-the-willow but somehow groovier.  I particularly liked the bass branch-player who was very old and venerable and the high flutier branch-player who started every song with blinding 2-note, 3-second virtuoso branch solos (eat your heart out Chick Corea).  For the 21st century -- Mandelbrot set fractal chaos theory music.

Enough about branches.  The singer of the festival must have been Zimbabwe's own 'Tuku' Oliver Mutukudzi whose voice dripped soul and whose band kicked the rather astonished West Africans onto a new and unfamiliar groove plateau, aided and abetted by great band and lady singer/dancers.  It was sad to think that Oliver had lost 3 members to AIDS in the 3 months previous, but that's what is going on.

Local heroes were the wonderful Swede Lokole.  Young, percussive and punk, they kicked up the sort of storm that should get booked in every club in the land, were there any justice.  Others way more than worth a mention were Abdoulaye Diabate (Mali) who really came across, powered by great percussion and some amazing lateral thinking bass-lines, and Ensemble Tartit (Mauretania) who had a rare groove, loose but funky, featuring beautiful Toureg ladies, refugees from the conflict in Mali.  Accompanied by a correctly veiled male, they sang, drummed, strummed, clapped and danced the audience into semi-mesermism.  There were many, many more great bands and you've just got to see for yourself.

The whole event wrapped up at the Hotel Ivoire with a gala preformance featuring the PM, various Ministers and kind words of committment to the MASA.  This show was kicked off by Cote d'Ivoire's 'plus performante' brass band -- Fanfares Les Saccades de Tiassale.  Curious reaction:  they started playing and everyone started laughing, looking for hankies and waving them about doing a sort of twist-type dance.  The band blew with all their might on pre-war (1914-1918) instruments, some of which were good for 2 or even 3 notes.  The trumpet player had 2 solos, one up and one down.  Great stuff and, on reflection, they can come and live at my house as well!

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