It is a hot Savannah night. Festive drumbeats urge people to the village square. One after another giant animals arrive, their grass costumes fly as they swing and sway. Hidden inside each frame, men dance and work the puppets. The animals will compete with each other through the night.
Once, villagers hunted the dangerous beasts of the bush. The puppets celebrate those victories and athletic performers now capture the essence of the animals.
The story of the puppets: “There used to be many wild animals in the bush. The animals devoured the people so they found a solution by hunting the wild animals. Nowadays we celebrate with puppets that resemble the wild animals” (from fieldwork interviews, M. deCombes 1990).
These animals are constructed as wooden frames, covered with straw, with a large sculpted wooden head at one end with moving parts. Inside this animal stage, usually two men perform, dancing and moving the whole animal, while at the same time manipulating the puppets which emerge from its back.
The puppets are made and performed toward the end of the year, after harvest but before the spring rains. The puppet performance is for the pleasure of the villagers and of the neighbouring villages. There is fierce competition between neighbouring villages to produce the finest puppets; they perform in nightly succession. To maintain the best show, puppet owners try to enhance or replace their puppets regularly.
A broad range of social issues are enacted in these performances. The puppet characters depict local events and stories, heroes or villains and powerful animals. Hunters and warriors appear in the foreground of many puppet groups. These hunting figures recall colonial times when the military was feared: they were compared to lions, the kings of the bush. The antelope, another popular figure, is a proud animal and always remains within its group. The twins walk their dog, they too are proud, because they are so beautiful.
At the performances women of all ages sing songs which glorify the puppets and recall the special characteristic of each puppet animal performing. The animal characters compete in the performance.
The puppets are prepared and dressed before an all-night performance. The men of Segou make and perform inside the animal puppets and masks, with lively audience participation by everybody.
Final preparations take place away from prying eyes, so that the animals can make an imposing entrance at the night performance.
The puppet performances are light-hearted, and not serious like the mask performances. There is fierce competition between neighbouring villages to produce the best puppets and the villages perform in nightly succession. In this area, puppet owners ask 200 francs (1990) for the animation of each puppet. The team leader decides whether new puppets are needed or not. He then calls his colleagues together and if everyone agrees they collect money to commission new ones.
For a male outsider, there is neither secrecy nor restriction of access for viewing the puppets at all stages, unlike the situation regarding masks. The puppets are sold without complications, as the funds are used to renew the puppets of the village. The villagers try to renew, enhance or replace the puppets often in order to maintain the best show.
On the day of performance, new frames are made for the puppets. At the well, the young girls and boys wet the straw in preparation for the dressing of the puppet figures. The rice straw, saved from the previous harvest, is used to cover the wooden frames. Women’s printed skirt-cloths are borrowed to make vibrant ‘skins’ for the animal puppets. After this, the women have no more to do with the preparations, which are taken over by the boys and men.
The cleaning and preparation of the puppets, as shown in the video sequence, is done by men aged about 25 to 30. They work in a closed compound out of sight of women, and decide which puppets to replace, which to repaint.
The musicians performing are not necessarily from that particular village, but are musicians from the area who are considered good performers. However, they use the instruments belonging to the village.