Songs of freedom

Published in The Independent (January 18th, 2004)

The full moon was bathing the Saharan dunes in light as a middle -aged blind woman with two-tone braided hair and a shimmering blue dress was led slowly to the centre of the stage. She seemed nervous, putting a hand out for support from her husband, himself blind and with a guitar slung over his bandleader’s jacket in a similar shade of blue.

The five other band members, all younger, all sighted, continued to fiddle with their instruments, tweaking strings, turning knobs, tapping drums. The keyboard player, dressed almost like a Buddhist monk, smiled at the audience. The two female dancers glanced at each other. On the left of the stage, a wiry Frenchman in a stringy beanie hat tuned up his battered Fender.

Another pause, another touch of her husband’s arm, and then they let rip, launching into an exhilarating hour of kick-ass soul. Swirling organs, thunderous rhythms, exuberant dancing and, at the heart of it all, the passionate singing of Mariam and the rousing guitar of Amadou, The Blind Couple of Mali. On the sidelines Manu Chao, one of the world’s best-selling artists, seemed slightly bemused as he strummed away at his three chords.

When the couple, both Bambara from the Malian capital Bamako, launched into “Tamashek”, a song named after their Tuareg hosts, bearded men swathed in indigo robes and women in silver-strewn head-dresses punched the air in delight like teenyboppers at a Robbie Williams concert. Less than a decade ago the Bambara and the Tuareg, the famous Sub-Saharan nomadic people, were locked in civil war; now, they were united by sensational soul music.

It was an extraordinary moment in what has been called the most exciting musical festival in the world, the Festival in the Desert, held last weekend in the village of Essakane, 90 kilometres from the fabled city of Timbuktu, in Mali. Few other arts events can match the romance of this event: the white sand dunes, the cobalt skies, the camelskin tents, the flaming braziers at night, the camels plodding by, the scuttling scarab beetles, even the succession of traders offering swords, daggers and jewellery for sale.

Equally, few other sites are as remote. It is a triumph just to arrive, whether you come by camel from Algeria or four-wheel drive from Timbuktu and beyond. Indeed, it is hard to think of a more ludicrous place to hold such an event, barring perhaps the poles, which adds to the mystical fervour and sense of adventure that imbues the event.

After flying via Paris to Bamako, it took me two days of hard driving to travel the 750km to Timbuktu. The next day, follow-ing a quick look round this sandy, decaying mud-brick place, there was another three hours of sand-surfing and stoppages as we crossed the desert in our Toyota. Luckily Baye, our Tuareg driver, knew what he was doing. One group of Britons endured so many breakdowns it took them 14 hours to complete the last leg. An Irish film-maker broke down as night fell and opted to spend the night in the car rather than risk crossing the desert towards the music she could hear in the distance; the next morning, it took her under 10 minutes to reach the entrance. American and German visitors had to ignore travel warnings from their governments, alarmed by the last year’s kidnapping of tourists in the Sahara.

So much effort, but then this is so much more than a music festival. The festival in the desert dates back to the end of a separatist revolt in 1996, when 3,000 weapons were publicly burned in the Flame of Peace in a Timbuktu square. The war, which followed a series of severe droughts, disrupted the traditional rhythms of nomadic life and led many Tuareg to flee the desert for towns and refugee camps. Their plight was so desperate that Ryszard Kapuscinski, the perceptive Polish writer on Africa, said that they were perishing as a people, their way of life ending.

Today, this mobile and mysterious community is fighting back, using music and tourism as its weapons. The festival emerged after a group of Tuareg decided to revive traditional desert gatherings that had been held in the Sahara since pre-Islamic days, with political meetings interspersed by camel racing, displays of swordsmanship and music. And in a show of reconciliation, it was open to everyone.

The first event, in January 2001, was disrupted when bandits seized the sound system; the second was staged near the Algerian border in the face of a vicious sandstorm. The event really came of age last year when about 200 toubabs (“white people”) joined nearly 10 times as many locals to enjoy music by the best-known names in Malian music, some less well-known Saharan artists plus a handful of Westerners led by Robert Plant. The recording of this session of spooky desert blues won huge acclaim, with the respected DJ Charlie Gillett calling it the finest live album ever recorded.

This year, there were an estimated 1,800 Malians and 500 Westerners, of whom 80 were journalists and camera crews. The line-up remained uncertain until the artists actually appeared on stage; the handful of printed programmes seemed little more than a wish list at times. Salif Keita failed to turn up as billed, while Oumou Sangare, reputedly annoyed at having her shoes stolen, sang just two songs. But Ali Farka Toure ignored the interruption of a power cut to deliver a brilliant performance, his former protege Afel Bocoum – joined briefly by Damon Albarn – outdid the master with his sparse, acoustic blues and Habib Koite’s slick and energetic show was a popular closing set on Saturday evening, although slightly too formulaic.

As with any decent festival, events off stage linger in the memory. After an incredible set of performances on Friday night, ending with an exuberant show by Oumou Sangere’s virtuoso guitarist Baba Salah, I finally decided to call it a day as a German DJ took the stage. Slowly walking over (and sinking into) the dunes back to my tent, I came across a handful of people lying round a campfire. Invited to join them, I was handed a cup of sweet tea and then spent until 5am listening to Manu Chao, local heroes Tinariwen and members of Blackfire, a Native American punk band, jamming on guitars and drums. It was mesmerising to hear the ethereal sounds wafting up into gradually lightening Saharan skies.

The handful of other fortunate festival-goers were similarly amazed. “Where else would you get to sit round a campfire with the stars of a festival and be offered a drum to play by Manu Chao?” said Tore Knudsen, 31, a doctor from Reading, the next day.

I had previously met Blackfire when I came across four people in traditional Navaho costume standing beside the stage. Clayson Bennaly, one of the quartet, was excited to learn I was with The Independent since he read the newspaper online and admired the anti-war stance. There was something bizarre about standing in the middle of the Sahara discussing our coverage of a war in Iraq with a Native American from Arizona bedecked in feathers.

For the Western visitors, heads wrapped in turbans, there were so many exotic memories to gather. One Briton told me his highlight was discovering a group of 12 women sitting in a semi-circle clapping and singing to the booming sound of a water drum played with a flip-flop; for another, it was being invited to help a troupe of dancers from Niger put on elaborate face paint; for a third, it was a fashion show featuring shy and giggling models parading Toareg robes, veils and turbans.

Then there was the pleasure of discovering unfamiliar artists. Damon Albarn, having just completed months on the road with Blur, was there to play melodian on a couple of numbers with Afel Bocoum, his colleague on his Mali Music album. He found himself entranced by the hypnotic Tartit, a group fronted by women who met in a refugee camp in Mauritania and whose haunting chants, ululations, gasps and hand- claps over traditional instruments were one of the big hits again this year. As a result, he spent much of Monday in the markets of Bamako trying to track down examples of their work.

Despite some difficulties pitching his tent, he intends to return next year with his family. “It’s weird that the first time you really get into a remote desert you are there with 2,000 other people, but there is nothing else like this in the world. There is a festival in the Arizona desert, but it has thousands of people getting drunk and planes flying overhead advertising Budweiser. This just couldn’t be more different – and the music was fantastic.”.

Even when there is nothing happening on stage – and, perhaps a legacy of the French colonial past, this is a festival that stops for dinner – there is always music coming out of the performers’ tents. Passers-by are welcome to enter. I enjoyed half an hour with Nabi, a group of skilful musicians from Bamako, as they harmonised along to an acoustic guitar passed around among themselves. Afterwards, we tried to break through my schoolboy French as we chatted over biscuits.

A few people, however, were left with slightly more painful memories. One Briton was dragged off like a drunk between his two companions towards the Red Crescent tent to have treatment for a scorpion bite.

Although the organisers had built a fixed stage this year – which led to a new dune piling up in front of it, limiting the space for the audience – and some shower and toilet units, the logistics of the festival are formidable. Everything has to be trucked in to sustain more than 2,000 people for three days: food, drink, medicines, even toilet rolls. The sound system was brought in from Ouagadougou, in Burkino Faso, crossing the final stretch of desert in two trucks. It had to be fanned constantly when in use, and several units needed to be hauled back out of the sand every couple of hours by technicians. There were inevitable disasters, such as the power cut during Ali Farka Toure’s set, caused by somebody forgetting to put water in a generator.

Malian music, whether desert blues or rippling pop, is easily accessible to Western ears, with its familiar rhythms and obvious shared heritage, which is why its top artists are among the best-known names in world music. Even the handful of Europeans who arrived with little knowledge of African music left hooked. After three days of extraordinary music, played with a proficiency that puts most Western artists to shame, it was easy to see why Mali is being dubbed “the new Cuba”.

Most visitors I spoke to planned to return next year. Pat and Mike Burton, both 65 and from south London, endured a four-hour breakdown on the journey from Timbuktu, but said it was all part of the adventure. “We have listened to some fantastic music, met the Tuareg and been in the heart of the Saharan desert. And it all comes together in such harmony.”.

No doubt there will be many more like them next year, encouraged by the growing reputation of the festival, the publicity, the BBC film shot last weekend and, no doubt, another hit CD. They will be welcomed by most Tuaregs, desperate for investment in one of the poorest parts of the world’s poorest nations, where there are few natural resources, half the country is aged under 16, there is limited education (with just primary schooling in Timbuktu, for example) and 80 per cent youth unemployment.

The festival’s temporary medical centres are used to treat up to 300 local people a day, many nomads who have never before seen a doctor. The event also provides some jobs, both permanent and temporary, VC and brings a surge of attention and income into an area that has been blighted in recent decades.

N’Diaye Bah, the minister of tourism, said the festival underlined to the world that the “unhappy incident” of the rebellion was in the past, pointing to the fact that even his own bodyguard was a Tuareg. “This all shows we are a peaceful culture and demonstrates the potential of the desert.”.

Others are more sceptical. There have been complaints that a festival for nomads has suddenly ended up with a fixed base; there are jealousies over the distribution of the money and concerns that its very success could ruin the event. There are even tensions over its “ownership”; when I mentioned to Ali Farka Toure that it was a Tuareg festival, he snapped back that it was a Malian festival – although other musicians from the south of the country said part of their pleasure at playing the event was to give something to a troubled people.

Cheick ag Baye, a Tuareg leader from the village of Kiddel, near the Algerian border, supported the uprising and was heavily involved in the negotiations that led to the peace deal in 1996, writing the final draft himself. “I am very worried about the impact of all this. I am concerned that our culture will be squashed, or ignored, since our people are not strong economically. All we can do is try to control the festival as it grows.” He added, however, that its success offered a form of protection to the Tuareg. “You are here, the BBC is here, foreign politicians are here. You are all talking about us and will go home and talk about us. Some-times it is better to fight without guns.”.

There are rumours of plans to impose a limit on the number of foreigners permitted to attend, but the organisers deny this, saying that to turn back visitors would offend the Tuareg sense of hospitality. They admit, however, that they may try to curb its promotion if its keeps growing at the same exponential rate, which would see the number of toubabs match the number of Tuaregs within two years.

Fears that it will turn into a slice of coffee-table exotica for middle-class Westerners are shared by Simon Broughton, editor of the world music magazine Songlines. “What is so appealing about this event is that it is something so rooted in the people and culture of an extraordinary region. There is a clear danger that as the popularity grows, the magic goes.”.

Even Tim Best, a sponsor and the main British tour operator taking visitors out to the desert festival, agrees. “The inaccessibility and Tuareg presence will help it keep its individuality, but I fear it may become like any other pop concert in the end, just in a remarkable place. And I know I will share the guilt. But it will be a great pity if it does lose any of its unique Tuareg character.” He is pressing for more Tuareg cultural events to ensure the festival does not lose sight of its heritage.

There are, however, natural barriers to growth. The distance, the heat, the sand and the ferry that drivers must take to reach Timbuktu from the south. Even this year, there were queues on the banks of the river of up to three hours on the day before the festival, and fights broke out among those struggling to get away on Monday.

In Timbuktu, there is a plaque on a house to Heinrich Barth, one of the greatest 19th-century travellers. He spent five desperate years travelling the Sahara, quenching his thirst with blood from his own veins and enduring pursuits by bandits intent on killing him. Upon his return to Europe, few people appreciated his incredible feat and he died a bitter man. He would be incredulous at events going on in his desert today.

But for now, the festival in the desert remains a unique event embedded in a mysterious – though rather more welcoming – culture. I will not forget turning to talk to a friend while listening to a band, only to find myself talking to a camel’s nose. On top of the beast was a Tuareg tribesman, giggling behind his turban. So much for the desert blues.

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