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Senegal Hosts World Arts Festival

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Senegal Hosts World Arts Festival

Senegal Hosts World Arts Festival

Senegal Hosts World Arts Festival

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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More than 30 years after it was last staged, an ambitious international festival celebrating arts and culture from across the African Diaspora is in full swing in the West African nation of Senegal. The month-long World Festival of Black Arts and Culture has featured more than two thousand artists from 52 countries participating in 16 different arts disciplines. Host Michel Martin speaks with the festival's artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, about the festival's significance.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, this is the season of lists, and we have pop culture writer, Jeff Yang's picks of the best YouTube videos of 2010. That is in just a few minutes.

But first we go to Senegal in West Africa where an ambitious international festival of black music, arts, and culture is drawing to a close.

(Soundbite of Music)

That was Angolie(ph) Kijo(ph) on stage at the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture.

This is the third such even since 1966 when the festival was launched by the President of a newly independent Senegal. It was meant to promote black pride at a time when many African nations were fighting colonial powers, and it featured an enormous range of cultural expression, everything from music and dance to architecture and fashion. It was staged once again in 1977 before being revived this year.

The month-long event has feature more than 2,000 artists from 53 countries. Kwame Kwei-Armah is the festival's artistic director. He joins us now from the studios of the BBC in Dakar.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.

Mr. KWAME KWEI-ARMAH (Artistic Director, World Arts Festival): Well, thank you. It's lovely to be invited to be on your show, but also it's kind of wonderful to be here in Dakar when the streets are just simply alive with the energy of the festival.

MARTIN: You must be exhausted. This is a hugely ambitious undertaking.

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: Yes, I am exhausted. But, you know, it's that kind of elated exhaustion, and it's - I suppose, actually, I have a feeling of sadness that it's soon to draw to a close, and that maybe I may not have taken it all into my brain.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, what was your vision - as artistic director, what was your vision, your guiding vision, as you put the program together? What were you looking for as you identified participants?

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: I think we were looking for a few things. We wanted the festival to be an articulation of the new African renaissance. Africa and its children, actually, not just on the continent. And I think mainly what I wanted, if there is something that I think that I may have brought to the festival, is to kind of remove the artificial divide between academia and art, and kind of merge them into one, and allowed the festival to just not be something that you came to, passively.

For instance, all of the artists who came and who partook in our art exhibition, for instance, would meet and would discuss the state of modern art and contemporary art across the world today, and then at the end look towards what Africa's art will be tomorrow. We did that across the 16 disciplines.

So, you know, in a kind of way, it was a wonderful catalyst about where we will all be and where we want to be in the next 20 and 50 years.

MARTIN: Now, I want to just play a short clip from a voice that many people will know, and they will certainly identify with world music or with music coming from Africa - modern music coming from Africa. And I'll just play short clip, that I know you'll recognize this.

Mr. YOSSOU N'DOUR (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Now, of course, that's the incomparable Senegalese star, Yossou N'dour, who is very well known, and I wondered if there was ever any - I don't want to say tension between showcasing someone who is already an established international star, and trying to showcase those who perhaps might not be as well known.

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: Well, Yossou performed in the opening ceremony, magnificently. I think we've had a wonderful balance of international stars that are homegrown international stars that were flown in. But also, it was right at the heart of the festival that Senegalese artists and West African artists would have center stage.

So I would say that maybe that wouldn't be an accusation that I might accept fully.

MARTIN: But (Unintelligible) and Yossou N'dour, who is an innovator himself, has sometimes been criticized for - I don't think anybody, you know, doubts his, you know, credentials, but he's also done collaborations with people with Neneh Cherry, and sometimes people think, oh, well, you know, you're straying too far from your roots. And I do want to ask whether there are artists who have participated in these kinds of collaborations, that anybody said, well, you're not African enough.

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: I dont think weve had that discussion in this festival. Rather remarkably I think, I only realized it the other day, that not one piece of public art and not one piece of performance art has anybody really discussed what it is to be black, what it is to be an African. There's not been that kind of dialectic that has kind of said there's a difference between African work and African American work, for instance, that causes division. It's been very much focused on how we create the Africa of tomorrow that stands on equal footing with the rest of the world.

MARTIN: We're talking about the World Festival for Black Arts and Culture currently being staged in Dakar, Senegal. Our guest is Kwame Kwei-Armah. He is the artistic director of the festival.

Now as, of course, I think you may know, Africa has been much in the spotlight this year because the World Cup was staged there in South Africa.

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: But, you know, the economy did play a role, that there are many people who would have liked to have traveled who did not do so because of financial circumstances. Did you have the kind of turnout you'd hoped for?

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: Well, I mean I have to say I'm overjoyed at the amount of international visitors that the festival has had. I don't have the numbers to hand but, you know, every day our kind of welcoming committee at the airport is overwhelmed by the numbers coming in. Yes, of course, the economy played a part in it. But I think those who would be interested in this kind of festival have found their way here. As you may know, we had 200 African American city mayors and senators come in to be part of our forum. We've had American artist come into the part of our panel debates in each one of the 16 disciplines. And we've had just punchers just turn up just to say I just want to be part of this magnificent historic event.

MARTIN: Why such a long gap between this festival and the last one, if you may know? As we mentioned earlier, the first was in 1966, the second in 1977, and why such a long gap? And when can we expect another?


MARTIN: I know you want to recover from this one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But is another one in the planning?

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: Well, I mean, yeah, a gap of 33 years is almost unexplainable. I think there's been the will but there hasn't quite been the way. I think though that that will not happen again - that period. We're thinking within the next four years that either another African nation will take the lead, or even Brazil, who is our guest of honor this year - that they may have it there within the next four years.

MARTIN: And I shall expect my invitation?

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: Oh, I think I already have your address.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Kwame Kwei-Armah is an actor and a playwright. He is also the artistic director of the World Festival for Black Arts and Culture. It's been going on all month in Dakar, Senegal and is concluding this week. And he was kind enough to join us from the BBC studios there.

Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations once again.

Mr. KWEI-ARMAH: Well, thank you so much. And thank you for giving us some airtime because, you know, I think there's a lot of people across the world that, who got here are, have a great time. We've had a great time. But also there's a lot of people who would just want to look this up on the Web and say I just want to be part of it in that way. So thank you for reaching out to your audience in that way for us.

(Soundbite of music)

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