It almost didn’t happen. The stalwarts and heroes of Mali’s legendary Festival au Desert have brought their caravan to North America, with a message that Tuareg, Songhai, Bambara, Peul, and any other people who wish to should live together in the north of Mali, in peace. Surprisingly, it was nearly the peace-loving Canadians who scuttled this epic enterprise. After a great launch for the Caravan Pour la Paix in New Mexico, the next stop was Montreal for a night at the 27th Festival International Nuits d’Afrique. But last minute changes and roadblocks from the Canadian side delayed the 14 musicians in New York until the last possible moment. They arrived barely in time to take the stage at Montreal’s La Tulipe nightclub, and begin a 3-hour-plus extravaganza of desert trance music and dance.
Tartit, the amazing Tuareg roots ensemble, has not played this continent in ten years, and had never been in Montreal. Their sound is as entrancing as ever, and if there’s a rougher, bluesier edge to the four principle women’s vocals, they’ve come by it honestly after a harrowing period of conflict, migration, uncertainty, and scarcity. After the concert, leader Fadimata Walett Oumar (“Disco”)–and indeed all the members of this multi-ethnic ensemble–spoke of the need for unity and rebuilding in the north. She’s been through the wars, but lost none of her grace and commitment to her nation and people.
Next up was Imharhan, a split-off group, led by former Tartit gutiarist Mohammed Issa. With a more electric, “modern” sound, Imharhan kind of splits the difference between Tartit and Tinariwen, with the women of Tartit participating with vocals and dance. Very well received by a sell out crowd at La Tulipe.
The final portion of the Caravan show shifted from Tuareg to Sonrai, Peul, and even a little Mande music as Ali Farka Toure accompanist and protege Mamadou Kelly took the stage as lead man. Kelly is a northerner of Peul and Bambara ancestry–living proof of the fundamentally multi-cultural character of this region, a key message of this tour. “This is our mission,” Kelly told me in an after-show interview. And it was certainly accomplished here. The onstage presence of AFT band veterans Hama Sankare (on calabash) and Yoro Cisse (on monochord lute) had to bring back memories to anyone who ever saw the amazing Ali perform. Kelly himself is a fine singer, and a superb, well-rounded guitarist, one who plays only acoustic, but fairly blazes in whatever style he chooses to tackle.
As this marathon show neared its close after midnight, the musicians mingled, dancing and clapping onstage, and finally crowding together as one family, the family of the north, refusing to be divided, despite all the forces that would do so today. Hama Sankare succinctly expressed the message they all seemed to share. “Come to the desert. Help us rebuild. You will find peace and hospitality.”
The Caravan heads for Northampton, MA, today, and New York on July 31.