Panaf: For a Dozen Days in 1969, Algiers was African

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 | Algiers, Algeria

Backstage: One of a series of atmospheric images captured by American photographer Robert Wade at the 1969 Panaf festival in Algiers, Algeria. (See full album here.)
"Muslims go to pilgrimage in Mecca, Christians go to the Vatican, and national liberation movements go to Algiers."

So said the hero of Guinea-Bissau's anti-colonial struggle, Amilcar Cabral, at a conference in the Algerian capital in 1968, when Algiers served as a haven and staging ground for rebels across Africa and beyond, from Nelson Mandela's ANC to freedom fighters from Angola, Mozambique, Palestine, Western Sahara, Zimbabwe, and more. Coming just six short years after Algeria's own hard-earned independence—which inspired anti-colonial dreams across the world—Cabral's pronouncement crystallized the city's reputation and lent Algiers a new moniker: "Mecca of the Revolutionaries." (For more on this era, watch Mohamed Ben Slama's insightful 2017 documentary of the same name.)

The next year, Algiers hosted an event that would further solidify that reputation: the Festival Panafricain d'Alger.

The Panaf took place 50 years ago this week, from July 21 to August 1, 1969, organized by the Algerian government under the aegis of the Organization of African Unity (predecessor to today's African Union). It was one of several high-profile, continent-wide cultural summits held during this period, each with its own flavor. And whatever the OAU's intentions might have been in selecting Algiers as
host city, the Panaf's Algerian hosts focused the festival resolutely on one objective: anchoring African-ness in the anti-colonial struggle.

In his opening speech, Algerian president Houari Boumediene stated definitively that this festival was no mere spectacle, but rather "an inseparable piece of the battle in which we are engaged together in Africa, be it for development or for national liberation."

Boumediene, of course, was central to the emergence of Algiers as the "Mecca of Revolutionaries" and of Algeria as a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement and ally of third world liberation struggles worldwide. Pictures abound of Boumediene side-by-side with Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung, Yasser Arafat, and other revolutionaries of the day. Through the Panaf, he aimed to enlarge the very idea of Pan-Africanism—from the previous generation's ethnically proscribed concept of négritude to a new one inclusive of the Mediterranean peoples of North Africa—by reframing the concept as one of opposition to a common imperialist enemy.

While America and much of the world still gazed skyward in wonder at the news of the Apollo 11 moon landing just days before, Algeria sought to build a new project here on Earth. Thousands of dancers, singers, writers, musicians, thespians, visual artists, professors, poets, and politicians descended on Algiers.

The festival opened with leaders of liberation struggles in Angola, Cape Verde, Rhodesia, South Africa, and elsewhere parading proudly at the head of their national delegations—rightfully replacing the uninvited colonial or apartheid rulers then in power. Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango, and other stars from across the continent performed concerts alongside luminaries from the African diaspora, including American stars Nina Simone, Barry White, and Archie Shepp. Recordings and accounts of the festival attest to the fascinating creative exchanges that took place, from on-stage cross-over performances to street-corner jam sessions, from Nina Simone singing "Ne Me Quitte Pas" to Archie Shepp stacking jazz saxophone riffs over Touareg drumbeats.

Afro-American Center: One of a series of atmospheric images captured by American photographer Robert Wade at the 1969 Panaf festival in Algiers, Algeria. (See full album here.)
For a few days in the summer of 1969, the Panaf united African countries newly emerged from colonial rule, others still in the grip of it, the African diaspora, the ascendant Black Power movement—and several hundred thousand (surely bewildered) local residents.

Also present were more than a few Americans, though for widely differing reasons. Algiers had recently witnessed the opening of the Afro-American Center at the head of the city's main commercial strip, Rue Didouche Mourad. Around the same time, several Black Panther leaders, including Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael (then Makeba's husband), settled in Algiers, drawing curious crowds with their presence at the Panaf.

Also present was Robert Wade, a talented young African-American photographer who had stumbled his way to Algiers, and who snapped a series of brilliant black-and-white photos featured throughout this article. (Full album here.)

But the more famous American spectator was William Klein, then in the midst of a rapidly ascendant career as a fashion and street photographer that would transform the art itself. Also a budding documentary filmmaker, the Paris-based Klein had been commissioned by the Algerian government to produce a documentary on the Panaf. He recruited and then unleashed a team of 12 film directors to cover the festival's every moment and every angle on 35mm film, which he spliced into "Festival Panafricain d'Alger", released later the same year. (I have been lucky enough to see the 90-minute film, and highly recommend it, if you can track it down; a partial clip is available here.)

Festival Panafricain d'Alger: Klein's film brings the energy of the festival to life.
So positive were the memories of the 1969 Panaf that the Algerian government decided to try to rekindle the festival's magic 40 years later with a second edition, held in Algiers in 2009. Despite the presence of big-name artists (Ismael Lo, Salif Keïta, Cesaria Evora, Cheb Khaled, Youssou N'Dour, Alpha Blondy, Magic System), it seems not to have met expectations. One Algerian writer recently remembered it as "a bad remake, without panache, without a true African soul."

At the time, Algeria was still struggling to move past and rebuild from a traumatic civil war that pitted the army against Islamist guerrillas in a struggle that was as much about defining public mores as it was about holding power. While leaders may have hoped the festival would revive the original Panaf's optimism and openness, the second edition was not universally appreciated, as a Reuters journalist relayed:
"For some people in conservative and Muslim Algeria the hedonism has gone too far. One newspaper said a performance by scantily-clad female dancers from sub-Saharan African was 'obscene' and asked why censors did not intervene. [...] One newspaper published a cartoon depicting a group of old women saying 'May God forgive us' as they looked at a topless African dancer."
Hotel Aletti garden: One of a series of atmospheric images captured by American photographer Robert Wade at the 1969 Panaf festival in Algiers, Algeria. (See full album here.)
If the 40th anniversary remake and its prudish crowd failed to live up to the spirit of the original Panaf, the scene in 2019 is at once more disappointing and more heartening.

Regrettably there has been no sign of any 50th anniversary tribute to the legendary Panaf festival. If there were, the festival should have been in full swing this week. I've been keeping me eyes open and believe me: it ain't happening. Most days, the streets of Algiers look normal for late July: hot and sleepy, with less traffic than usual.

That's no surprise, of course, given that Algeria's cultural scene is tightly managed by the government, which today remains preoccupied with responding to a nationwide protest movement that began in February.

The anniversary of this momentous event seems to have passed largely unnoticed, apart from a few half-baked retrospectives in the French and Algerian press (including one from local French-language paper El Watan that inexplicably devolved into a discourse on commemorative stamps).

As a passionate fan of many African musicians and artists, however, I had been looking forward, fingers crossed, to a Panaf 50th anniversary tribute festival for years. It had even figured in my discussions with Nina over how long we should stick around Algiers. I couldn't shake my desire to stay long enough to attend the Panaf 50. (If a handful of Americans could help record history back in 1969, maybe there would be a small place for a new one today?) Alas, history took a different course.

But while I'm personally saddened by the absence of a Panaf 50th anniversary festival, it's an even bigger loss for Algeria.

Not yet two weeks ago, Algeria exploded with joy after its national football team (anchored by a half-Congolese goalkeeper) beat Senegal to claim the African Cup of Nations trophy. Yet Africa, the continent on which Algeria sits, still seems bafflingly distant. While Algeria's south is quite visibly influenced by African culture, cuisine, language, music, and more, Algerians from the northern coastal region (where some 90 percent of the population lives) can frequently be heard talking down their noses at "les africains" who come to build their houses, tend their crops, or just pass through en route to Europe.

An assertive dose of African culture, welcomed and celebrated in the heart of the Algerian capital in tribute to a moment when the city shone as a global leader, might have gone far to build intercultural appreciation, solidarity, and respect. But there will be more anniversaries to come, and more chances to revisit the Algiers of the past and the Africa of the ever-evolving present. For the time being, we will have to wait, perhaps marveling at the sight of protesters filling the streets in the Mecca of Revolutionaries itself.

Grande Poste stage: One of a series of atmospheric images captured by American photographer Robert Wade at the 1969 Panaf festival in Algiers, Algeria. (See full album here.)
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