(ARISE magazine, issue 18) “It was absolutely amazing, explosive,” remembers Algerian artist Houria Niati. “People were embracing each other, there was total acceptance of what they were seeing. It was very pure, very untouched: raw Africa.” Algiers had never seen anything like it. Miriam Makeba, in exile from South Africa, sang protest songs, while Nina Simone premiered her take on Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas. In shaded courtyards, Black Panther leaders discussed revolutionary tactics with their African comrades. Wide-eyed children stayed out late under the twinkling streetlights, determined not to miss a second of the action. And the air was filled with the smoke of gun salutes, the sound of drums and a hubbub of tongues from all corners of Africa and beyond: Arabic, Portuguese, French, English, Yoruba, Swahili.
Niati was just 21 at the time and working in the Algerian Ministry of Sport and Culture. “Every day was different. Wherever they said there was a big singer I would go. We had open halls, open theatres… It was just incredible. People wouldn’t sleep because the weather was so fantastic.” Musical and political conversations thrived, inspiring scenes such as acclaimed US jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp freestyling on stage with Algerian and Touareg musicians. “We are still black and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus,” Shepp can be heard chanting on a live recording. “Jazz is an African power. Jazz is an African music.”
Funded by the Organisation Of African Unity (now the African Union), The Pan-African Cultural Festival of 1969 celebrated the achievements of a decade that had brought independence to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and, in 1962, Algeria – among others. Africa was united by a new sense of shared purpose, a sentiment evident in the excited yet overawed faces captured in Le Festival Panafrican D’Alger, American artist William Klein’s remarkable first-hand documentary of the event, which invaded Algiers from July 21-August 1, 1969.
But this impressive display of Africa’s rich culture had a deeper purpose. “The first Pan-African Festival is not a general diversion that distracts us from the daily fight,” says Algerian president Houari Boumédienne in the film to a UN-style conference of country representatives. “It is part of an immense effort for our emancipation”. Although today Algeria might seem an unlikely location for a pan-African festival, the country’s brutal eight-year struggle for independence in the 1960s had made it something of an African hero. Nelson Mandela trained with the country’s National Liberation Front in 1962. And it was the adopted home of Martinican writer Frantz Fanon, a key voice in Algeria’s independence struggle.
Nathan Hare, founding publisher of The Black Scholar, attended the festival and noticed Algeria’s resistance to “the re-entry of the French and American imperialists”. In the November 1969 edition of The Black Scholar he writes of seeing revolutionary graffiti on “buildings, walls and fences, and the old pre-revolutionary symbol of resistance, the haik (or veil), worn by so many of the women”.
A symposium was held to give a platform to speakers including Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, US Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael and Negritude theorist Leopold Senghor. “People came here specifically to check each other out,” says Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in the film, “to see what was going on and to get some ideas as to which movement they could relate to.” An Afro-American Cultural Center was also opened and a Pan African Cultural Manifesto drawn up, calling for culture to form the basis of a new, empowered Africa.”I don’t think there will ever be any African festival like that,” says Niati.
Nevertheless in 2009 there was an attempt to recreate the glory of the 1969 festival. The €80million event, organised by the Algerian government and African Union, attracted 8,000 artists from 51 African nations – including Salif Keita, Khaled and Binyavanga Wainaina. However a lot had changed since the first festival. “It’s quite amazing because [in 1969] you can see women wearing the traditional veil next to a topless African dancer,” says Ali Meziane, one of the organisers of London’s Algerian Cultural Festival. “But in 2009 you could hear from the crowds shouts of ‘monkeys’ towards the dancers and some racist comments.” In 40 years Algeria had been through a lot: Algerian Civil War, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But, says Meziane, “the festival is a good tool to educate people to reopen the Algerian identity towards an African identity. We are Algerians and we are Africans”.