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Soundtracking FESPACO, Burkina Faso’s Pan African film festival

From awkward presidential entrances to prize winning soundtracks, music has scored the iconic film festival that brings together filmmakers from across the continent and diaspora since its inception in 1969.

The 16th edition of the The Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO) occured at a tense moment for Burkina Faso. The festival of cinema synonymous with the Burkinabé capital Ouagadougou would be the last of the 20th century and opened two months after the murder of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo – manager of L’Indépendant newspaper and a thorn in the side of president Blaise Compaoré and his regime.

Ivorian superstar Alpha Blondy had been booked as the opening act and archive video shows the cathartic reaction that greeted the reggae singer and his band. The cameras were rolling too when Blaise Compaoré made what he hoped would be his grand entrance but which unfortunately coincided with Blondy’s rallying rendition of his diatribe on poor governance on the continent, “Les Imbéciles”.

Everything changes, everything evolves
Only fools, don’t change
I insist, I persist, and I sign
The enemies of Africa are the Africans

Blondy sang before timing out his band so the president could be seated in the Stade du 4 Août.

However, once the festival’s opening address was made, celluloid shows Blondy picking up exactly where he left off, with a reload of the same tune before his performance was abruptly and unsurprisingly halted. 

The courage and candour of Blondy in 1999 epitomises some of the spirit of FESPACO and its taboo breaking filmmakers. Created in 1969 the festival was born during a time of self determination and Pan African renaissance for Burkina Faso (at that time named Haute Volta) and its West African neighbours. As the proverb says `Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will glorify the hunter’ so FESPACO sought to bring together film makers to tell African stories through an African lens and to celebrate African excellence. 

Held biannually the festival has become a huge source of pride for Ouagadougou where roundabouts, squares and thoroughfares carry the names of great cineastes and the coveted Etalion d’or de Yennenga is awarded for the best fictional film of each highly anticipated edition.

All eyes are thus on Ouaga for the 27th edition programmed for the 16th to 23rd of October under the theme,  “Cinema from Africa and the Diaspora, new talents, new challenges.” But what of past festivals? And beyond Blondy, what other musical highlights have there been?

Senegalese troubadour Wasis Diop is arguably the most awarded musician and composer of FESPACO. Born in Dakar in 1950, Diop has become the go-to for scoring the beauty and the melancholy of life on the fringes of Saharan desert and made his debut with his brother Djibril Diop Mambetey’s film Hyenas. Toting his immediately recognisable acoustic guitar and lending his wistful voice to numerous FESPACO selections, Diop won best original score in 1999, (Silmandé) 2001, (Les Couilles de l’éléphant) and 2003 (Le prix du pardon.)

In recent years he has worked consistently with Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun on a number of films set in and around the Sahel. Haroun, who also included the guitar picking of Ali Farka Touré in his 2002 film Abouna, first enlisted Diop for his 2006 revenge story Daratt (Dry Season)which won the 3rd prize of FESPACO 2007. 

Perfectly evoking the hot breeze of the harmattan with his guitar, Diop’s music for Daratt accompanies the film’s hero Akim who journeys to N’Djamena to avenge his father. Finding work in the bakery owned by his father’s murderer Nassara (Youssouf Djaoro) Akim and Nassara grow close, with the elder unaware of the back story of his new apprentice all of which will unfold to the sound of Diop’s meditative music.

Diop and Haroun then took second prize in 2011 with A screaming man (Un homme qui crie) the story of another uneasy father and son relationship for which Haroun again cast Djaoro. 

A Screaming Man – UK Trailer

A Screaming man is the story of proud pool attendant Adam (Djaoro) who sends his son to war when he usurps the older man in his job in the hotel they both work in. Featuring ethereal accordion and strings, Diop’s music for A screaming man has a shimmering and liquid quality that elaborates on the motif of water that flows through the film.     

Other West African composers recognised at FESPACO include the great Cameroonian writer and musician Francis Bebey who in 1989 won best original score at the 11th edition for his spare and melodic soundtracking of Yaaba by the Burkinabé director Idrissa Ouedraogo

Representing Mali, Cheick Tidianne Seck has also taken the best soundtrack prize in 1993 for his collaboration with Mahamadou Cissé on his story of return Yelema.  

FESPACO is truly a pan-African celebration and the genius of South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim was acknowledged with prize for best soundtrack in 1991 when the Cape Town born jazz musician previously known as Dollar Brand received the accolade at the 12th edition of the festival for his music for Tilaï (The Law) by Burkinabé director Ouedraogo. 

An African fable with the gravitas of a Greek tragedy, the drama of Tilaï is heightened by the large strident piano chords of Ibrahim, whilst the pace and inexorable momentum of the story towards its denouement are carried forward by the composer’s use of upright bass, flute and percussion.

Abdullah Ibrahim

In addition to the Etalion d’or de Yennenga and prize for best soundtrack, since 2017 FESPACO has awarded The Thomas Sankara Prize for a short film. 

Named in honour of the progressive leader who gave Burkina Faso it’s postcolonial name and began revolutionising the country before his assasination 1987 – The Sankara prize is awarded by the Paris based Guild of African Film Directors and Producers whose chairman Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda offered this advice to aspiring filmmakers: “We are not looking for a revolutionary film. Cinema is already a revolutionary deed. Making a film in Africa is already an act of commitment and resistance.” 

Which brings us full circle to Alpha Blondy who in 2017 was invited back to open the festival.  The occasion was Ivory Coast’s designation as `guest of honour’, a practice whereby each edition of FESPACO a different African country is honoured (2021 will be the turn of Senegal.) 

All of this cinematic creativity though is not without its challenges. The proliferation of DVDs, widespread piracy, and the closure of cinemas in Burkina Faso and elsewhere on the continent have added to other practical and logistical challenges that face any African filmmaker hoping to develop a story for the screen.
Thankfully though, from Tunisia to Senegal, Egypt to Congo those stories, and the heroism required to put them on the screen, are in no short supply.    

The 2021 FESPACO edition will take place in Ouagadougou from October 16 to 23.

FESPACO poster from a previous edition