Dispatches: The 2nd Pan-African Culture Festival in Algiers

By Thomas Burke

Words Without Borders DispatchesWalking through the hotel lobby two hours before the concert, Malian singer-songwriter Salif Keita seemed to be on another plane of existence—when approached by dignitaries, fans and fellow musicians, Mr. Keita, wearing matching white pants, shirt and kufi cap, appeared unable to do much beyond smile. Quincy Troupe, an American author, leaned over and commented, "Miles Davis was the same way before a show—he couldn't even talk with his friends."

Two hours later, at midnight on an outdoor stage constructed beneath the towering Monument of the Martyrs of the Algerian War, Salif Keita and his band delivered a beautifully executed concert: soul-quaking rhythms, improvisational solos, and at times, Mr. Keita would wave his arms or stomp around the stage, as if the power and purpose of his lyrics were almost too difficult to wrangle for delivery to the thousands and thousands of Algerians shouting and dancing in the audience.

The 2nd Pan-African Culture Festival is now in full swing in Algiers and its surrounding towns. Some 8,000 artists and writers from 51 African nations have convened for the festival, in addition to the 20,000 local artists that are also participating. It's a massive enterprise, the total cost of which exceeds 80 million Euros. It is one of the largest cultural festivals on the continent since Nigeria hosted FESTAC in 1977.

The Algerian government is footing nearly the entire bill, and doing so without heavy subsidies from the French, the European Union, or any other of the usual suspects that regularly dole out funding for cultural projects in Africa.

This, the 2nd festival, follows the 1st Pan-African Cultural Festival that was held in Algiers forty years ago, in 1969. Seven years earlier, in 1962, Algeria defeated France in a war for independence, and that victory helped provide inspiration for other battles and campaigns for independence across the continent. So in 1969, that first festival was conceived of as a way to unite the vast nations on the continent in collective celebration after many successful independence movements.

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The 2009 festival is the brainchild of Mrs Zéhira Yahi, Chief of Cabinet to the Minister of Culture in Algeria. With a background in journalism, several years ago Mrs. Yahi embarked on a radio documentary project that chronicled the 1969 festival—and when the documentary was aired in Algeria, the public response was so great that it moved Mrs. Yahi to begin lobbying for a second festival.

8mm footage of the 1969 festival was shown this year at a posh fashion show entitled, Africa Clothes the World, held at the Hotel el-Aurassi, one of hundreds of events offered throughout the festival. The 1969 festival film clips presented a very bohemian and raw scene, a stark contrast to the catwalk, the flashing lights, and the gigantic plasma screen monitor that the footage was displayed on.

The theme of the 2009 festival is African Renaissance, subtitled: Africa is Back. And although the implied dormancy needed to substantiate the term "renaissance" is questioned by some, as are the appropriation of funds and the absence of several African countries from the festival (including neighboring Morocco)—despite these and other issues that inevitably emerge from such a gathering—a comings-together on this scale, featuring such a range of talents and styles, is an exception in the international arts festival circuit.

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Every night for the duration of the festival, there are ten, if not many more, simultaneous concerts, plays, dance performances, etc. available to the public for free at venues across the city. These are not small venues, either; nearly all of them can accommodate hundreds if not thousands of spectators, and habitually do. And while there may be a bent towards Francophone performers, headliners are all bona fide international superstars, such as musicians Khaled and Ismael Lo, or the band Kassav.

What is so interesting, Mrs. Yahi explained, is that Algerians, in the construction of their present identities, haven't regularly considered themselves a part of the Pan-African conversation—a reason why Mrs. Yahi saw the 2009 festival as so important. Algeria is a predominantly Muslim, Arabic-speaking nation that has traditionally recognized closer ties with the Middle East more than it has with sub-Saharan Africa. But identity for many Algerians seems to be shifting to some degree, as evidenced by their active engagement with the droves of foreign artists and writers currently performing in their country.

Visiting artists, in addition to taking over most of the hotels in town, also occupy an artists' village that was built specifically for the festival and is located on the outskirts of Algiers—that compound sleeps well over a thousand.

The festival is also facilitating a number of on-site creative endeavors. Of its many guests, there are twenty or so cartoonists who have been brought together from all corners of the African continent. They are artists-in-residence at l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Algiers, where they are working on a collaborative book project, an unprecedented initiative spearheaded by Algerian artist and novelist Djeleli Besbri, and funded in part by the International Festival of Comics, which will be held in Algiers in October. The IFOC will also publish the end product of this meeting of the minds.

Words Without Borders Dispatches These artists' work—along with hundreds of other pieces of artwork, cultural artifacts, and installations from Algeria and across the continent—are on display in various galleries and museums throughout the city. Among these items, in this case at the Bardo Museum, is Lucy, the remains of one of the oldest humans known to mankind, on loan from the Museum of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

Another important facet of the festival is the conversations taking place between the artists themselves, and not only within disciplines. The festival is a breeding ground for cross-pollination and synergy in the arts, in other words, very fertile ground. Hotel lobbies and lounges are hives of activity where one might bump into Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, Malian designer Alphadi, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, or Alpha Blondy, the musical sensation from Cote d'Ivoire.

The long term results of a festival like this of course remain to be seen, but there is great potential in a number of arenas, ranging from the cultural to the social and political. James Early, Director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Institute, provides one view: "This festival is very much about establishing a cultural identity of Algeria as a part of Africa, even as a part of its cultural identity is the Middle East... it is an axis among Europe, African, Latin America and the Middle East; I feel that and keep getting an image in my mind—we're way up at the top of the continent—that a flag has been put in the ground."

all images credit Thomas Burke


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