Senegal: a trip to Baaba Maal's music festival

Thousands of fans from West Africa flock to the annual Blues du Fleuve festival in Podor, founded by the wildly popular singer who hopes it will one day become Africa’s Glastonbury

Senegal’s Blues du Fleuve is an annual music festival founded and headlined by Baaba Maal – a singer so popular and influential in this part of the world that over the course of the weekend a shipment of mosquito nets is dropped off at his house for protecting his guests courtesy of the minister of health. Maal is the man who gets things done around here. In Francophone West Africa he is Kanye West with a diplomatic passport, the Pope with better dance moves.

Maal’s festival has run since 2006 and usually takes place in Podor, the northernmost town in Senegal, although in previous years it’s visited the capital Dakar and crossed the border to Boghé in Mauritania. Podor will always be its spiritual home, though, for two reasons: it’s Maal’s hometown, and it’s in a prime spot on the Senegal river – the Fleuve which gives the festival its name – which forms the border between Senegal and Mauritania, after passing through Guinea and Mali.

Outside of the festival, the river is the main reason a toubab – the local term for visiting Europeans – might visit Podor, a sleepy town of 12,000. The Bou el Mogdad, a Dutch riverboat dating from 1950 and renovated in 2005, travels up regularly from the old colonial capital of Saint-Louis. Passing tourist trade has led to the opening of two clean, well-appointed guesthouses on Podor’s riverfront: the Auberge du Tekrour and La Cour du Fleuve. While the boat is docked, as it was over the festival weekend, you can drink cocktails onboard. It’s a more enticing prospect than the sole quayside bar, as dark and dingy a dockside dive as I’ve ever seen a man collapse in. More promisingly, there’s a fine boulangerie around the corner and the staple local dish is the delicious ceebu jën, which is rice and fish in the same way that Dom Pérignon is a fizzy French wine.

‘This festival started as a dream’: Baaba Maal plays to the crowds.
‘This festival started as a dream’: Baaba Maal plays to the crowds. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Fittingly for a festival celebrating the shared culture of the four countries the river joins, Blues du Fleuve 2015 opens with a regatta. Crowds throng the riverfront at dusk on Friday as Baaba Maal makes his entrance aboard a garish fishing boat. After Maal, Podor’s other most famous child is Oumou Sy, a fashion designer known as Senegal’s queen of couture. She designed and choreographed a spectacular opening ceremony, with ballroom dancers in Senegalese colours and children decked out in the flags of every African nation. During his opening speech, Maal tells the crowd that he was inspired by festivals he’s played around the world. He says he hopes Blues du Fleuve will one day become Africa’s Glastonbury. It’s not nearly muddy enough, but otherwise you wouldn’t bet against it. “This festival started as a dream,” Maal tells me later. “We wanted to have a celebration and to invite people to discover the culture of this part of the world.”

On Saturday night the festival moves to the dusty local football pitch, where there’s enough space to accommodate the tens of thousands of fans who’ve travelled from across West Africa for the free shows. The line-up is drawn from every country the river touches, with Mali’s Alou Sam getting the crowd going with the sort of hip shaking I thought had died with Elvis. Next up is Guinea’s Petit Yero and his gyrating dancers. Spotting a hapless toubab near the front they haul me onstage and twerk at me aggressively, somewhat puncturing my air of journalistic detachment.

I stand out because the festival hasn’t had too many toubab visitors in the past decade, but Maal wants to encourage them. “They should come,” he says later. “People here are known for their hospitality, so they’ll give a good welcome to strangers who’ve come from far away. Visitors will learn about something they didn’t know exists in Africa. Africa is very diverse, and Podor isn’t a big town like Dakar. If people want to discover a new culture, new foods, listen to new sounds for their ears and get lost a little bit in the dust, then this is the place.”

Midway through Saturday’s show, a gift horse is led out to be presented to Maal as thanks for organising the whole bash. With perfect comic timing the horse lifts his tail and takes a shit in front of the stage. Thankfully it’s the only instance of public defecation under the influence of horse tranquillisers I witness – this isn’t V Festival.

Tales of the riverbank: fishing boats on the Fleuve.
Tales of the riverbank: fishing boats on the Fleuve. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

The night goes on with the phenomenal Noura Mint Seymali, whose soaring vocal and great rock’n’roll band backing make her something like a Mauritanian Janis Joplin. The headliner is local Senegalese pop sensation Adiouza, who brings a touch of crowd-pleasing Beyoncé glamour to the end of the night.

Baaba Maal himself headlines the Sunday night. He’s a simply breath-taking performer, and to see him in front of a home crowd is unreal. He brings the crowd almost to the point of mania again and again, creating waves of euphoria that don’t require drink or drugs. His true importance is best summed up by a young rapper named Amadou Touré, who fronts local group Timtimol, one of the festival’s support acts. “Baaba Maal represents all of the Fulani people,” he explains. “When the people in London and the rest of the world hear him singing, they start to discover my culture. He’s the reason you’re here, man! When you listen to Baaba Maal, you listen to me.”


Baaba Maal’s latest album, The Traveller, is out on 15 January. He will be touring the UK in early January with a headline date at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 20 January. For full details of the festival in Podor, go to A double room at La Cour du Fleuve costs about £29 per night. Return flights from London to Dakar cost from £603 with Air France. Taxi transfer to Podor costs about £75. Entry to the festival is free.

Kevin Perry

The GuardianTramp

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