8,000 artists celebrate in Panafrican Fest

July 9, 2009 9:53:47 AM PDT
From superstars to tribal dancers, thousands of African artists are celebrating their troubled continent's culture and potential in an epic festival - and looking back at what they've accomplished and squandered in four decades of freedom from colonial rule. It's been 40 years since the first Panafrican Festival in Algiers. Since then, there has been so much bloodshed, instability and financial turmoil across the continent that nobody was in a position to organize a second one, until now.

The opening parade this week made for a staggering one-and-a-half-hour show, with several hundred performers from Congo's Pygmy hunters to Kenya's Masai and Mali's Peuhl tribesmen mixing their dances and songs with Arab fighters galloping through the stage on horseback, fire-eaters and trapeze artists.

Some 8,000 dancers, singers and other artists are gathering with academics for symposiums, plays and writing seminars at the second Panafrican Festival, which lasts until July 20 at hundreds of venues throughout Algeria.

Yet the event aims beyond just pleasing audiences. "The idea is to reflect on what we've done with four decades of freedom," said Zouaoui Benhamadi, a senior Algerian official who's been preparing the festival for 14 months and describes it as "a gigantic think-tank for Africa."

Part of the goal, he said, is to move on from postcolonial problems to "look at what Africa can really be proud of and build in the future."

The first festival took place in Algiers in 1969 amid widespread euphoria. Most African nations had just gained independence, they were full of hope, and Algeria was spearheading the nonaligned movement balancing between the Western and Soviet blocks.

The decades since have been less heady.

Many African states are still struggling to overcome dictatorships or army-led regimes, while civil-wars, famine and corruption remain widespread across a continent that experienced the world's worst recent genocide in Rwanda and faces accusations of a second one in Darfur.

Algeria especially was long in no position to stage a second festival, said chief organizer Benhamadi, referring to the "black decade" of near civil war between armed Islamists and Algerian authorities that killed up to 200,000 people during the 1990s.

Things have now improved, "but we need to understand where we're going," he said.

Somalia hasn't sent a delegation to the festival because it is too weakened by the war and maritime piracy raging in the country. Morocco hasn't either, because it withdrew from the African Union after the contested Western Sahara territory was included. Other countries, meanwhile, are teetering from recent coups, such as Madagascar, Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania.

"Maybe culture, which is Africa's greatest wealth, can offer an answer," Benhamadi said.

In the opening parade late Monday, Cape Verde's Cesaria Evora emerged from all the brouhaha, a petite, aging figure who sang her internationally acclaimed "Fado" songs to the bemused crowd of several thousand in Algiers' main closed-door concert hall.

She was followed by Senegal superstar Youssou N'dour, and one of the Arabic music scene's last divas, the Algerian-born Warda.

The show was styled as a dance and song fresco that traces Africa's history. Dancers enacted slavery and colonization, before portraying Africa's independence struggle. As they performed, a 360-degree movie on the walls showed archive footage of the continent's bloody liberation wars and key moments in the fight against colonialism - such as Algeria's proclamation of independence from France in 1962 and the liberation of South Africa's Nelson Mandela from Apartheid prisons in 1990.

"This is extremely cool, all the more so that we don't know much about Africa," said Faycal Belkharad, 22, an engineering student at Algiers' university. Dancing and sweating like most of the audience, he pointed out that Algeria usually relies more on French culture and television, or pan-Arabic satellite TV, than on its ties to Africa. "It's as if we're reclaiming who we are," he said.

"Even in Paris, I've never seen anything so startling," added Tassadit Cherifi, 24, a Franco-Algerian lawyer trainee in Algiers.

Still, several voices have been critical of the festival, saying Algeria could better spend the millions of dollars solving its huge social problems rather than funding culture.

There are also security concerns in an often-restive town like Algiers. An AP reporter saw a man critically injured from a stab wound next to one of the festival's open-air concerts in downtown Algiers late Monday.

Police have confirmed the man later died, but said the incident was related to drug trafficking, not to one of the many scuffles that often erupt during public events in the capital.