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Day 46: Tirelli

Tirelli, Mali 
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Watching the tingetange, stilt dancers, at a celebration of the dead. Four or five feet off the ground, with masks, cowrie shell bodices and horsetails, the dancers require exceptional skills and long training.
Michael Palin - SaharaBefore proceedings begin, men with fly-whisks clear children from the dancing ground. Women can watch, but only from a distance. The masked dancers enter. Two drummers start the beat. Then others join in, striking curved hand-bells, and a piper adds the sound of a whistle to set up a persistent, repetitive rhythm. A chorus, of whom Amadou is one, urges on the dancers, who leap into the ring, dressed in raffia headdresses and skirts in bright yellow, pink and orange over baggy Dogon trousers. The most spectacular dance is performed by half a dozen men on painted stilts, wearing girl masks decorated with cowrie shells and false breasts made of baobab fruit. All the other dancers have elaborately decorated headdresses, which vary from horned antelope heads to likenesses of birds and the huge wooden mask called tiu that can be up to 18 feet long.

It is dazzling in its colour and energy, but I'm frustrated at not being able to comprehend more than the surface of this complex, expressive ritual.

The end of the dance does not mean the end of celebrations in Tirelli. The dancers are rewarded with a special brew of kojo, millet beer, and things really get going after we've gone.

As I lie in my tent, exhausted, as we all are, by another hot day of hard labour, the sound of partying carries across on the night air and, not for the first time in West Africa, I'm lulled to sleep by the distant sound of people having a much better time than me. And they're at a funeral.
Tirelli, Mali 
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A Dogon boy's drawing of a dancer's mask, which can be anything up to 18 feet long.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 46
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Tirelli
  • Book page no: 145

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