From dusk, jazz from the open-air concert blends with African
rhythms, and drifts off the shores of the tiny island where the
festival is held down the normally tranquil banks of the Senegal
This year's headline act, African-American blues singer Lucky
Peterson, would be hard pressed to find a venue more evocative
of the suffering of slaves transported to the Americas, widely
thought to have inspired the blues more than 100 years ago, than
The pastel-coloured, rectangular shops and houses lining the
river were once the warehouses for gum, ivory as well as slaves,
bound for the Atlantic trade.
But Peterson, a former child star who says he plays blues "with
a touch of jazz, a touch of soul, a touch of funk and a touch of
gospel", was anything but melancholic on the closing night of
the festival on Sunday.
Initially hidden behind dark shades, Peterson opened on the keys
with a more than 10-minute cover of Johnny Nash's "I Can See
Clearly Now", occasionally needling the few audience members
still sitting stiff in their chairs.
He then reached for a cherry-red electric guitar for an
adrenaline-filled two-hour set peppered with numbers from his
new album 'The Son of a Bluesman', prompting a heartfelt encore.
"Lucky was like a man possessed. The energy was streaming out of
his pores," Ibrahima Diop, the festival president, said.
Organizers have been seeking to boost the participation of local
artists, partly to break down the local perception that jazz and
blues music, despite humble origins, is elitist.
Senegalese jazz guitarist Herve Samb was invited back to
Saint-Louis after last playing at the festival alongside
Peterson in 1993 when he was just 14 years old.
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"The goal was to bring back together two exceptional guitarists 20
years afterwards. This year's edition is all about the comeback,"
said Mame Birame Seck, who selects the artists.
Twisting his hips in serpentine motions, Samb performed long,
emotional call-and-response sessions with his saxophonist and
drummer. Among the instruments in his band was the "Sabar" – a
traditional west African drum set originally used to communicate
between villages many kilometers apart.
"He played his butt off," said Peterson, summing up Samb's
For Samb, jazz, which began as a fusion between African and European
rhythms, can still be inspired by African music.
"Many fusion projects are driven by musicians outside of African
culture who don't know our music in depth. It needs to be reversed
so it's driven by us," he told Reuters.
The "comeback" theme also applies to the event itself. Now in its
22nd year, Africa's biggest jazz festival has in the past seen
greats like Herbie Hancock but audience numbers had dipped in recent
years amid budget constraints.
While the budget this year was "just a sliver" of the 205 million
CFA Franc ($424,800) that was sought, according to Diop, ticket
sales have climbed in 2014 to around 5,000 and hotels were booked
months in advance.
"We lost the confidence of a lot of our partners and now they are
coming back," Seck said.
($1 = 482.5300 Central African Cfa Franc Beacs)
(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Michael Roddy and Alexandra
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