Despite living among a variety of ethnic groups, the Bolon, who comprise some 10,000 people living close to the Mali border, have retained a unique cultural identity, and their masking rituals reflect animist beliefs that hark back to a world order in which the spiritual was part of everyday life. The intersection of these ancient beliefs with current reality is best symbolised by the wooden posts that mark the entrances to their villages, where dogs are sacrificed and their blood drunk to protect the inhabitants from witchcraft.
Previous encounters with white visitors, most of them fired with missionary zeal, have left the Bolon suspicious of foreigners, and even with a local guide and interpreter, it took de Combes years to earn their trust. But it was worth it for the richness and variety of the rituals he subsequently recorded.
In the course of his researches, he visited 21 Bolon villages and discovered that they rarely perform mask rituals at the same time; their sense of community ensures that people travel to neighbouring villages to witness the celebrations there, and an innate competitiveness ensures that they try to outdo each other. The masks, then, are frequently extraordinary; the scenes of the villagers dancing in them, unrecognisable as humans and kicking up storms of dust, even more so. The cowrie shell dance, performed only on special occasions, and always at night, is particularly eye-catching.
Throughout, de Combes expresses how privileged he felt to witness these rituals; his book, and the accompanying DVD, are a fitting acknowledgement of that privilege.
THE MAGIC OF THE MASK: The Bolon by Michel de Combes, Stonegate, £35