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Blogging Backwards- Festival in the Desert, Part 1

In advance this weeks encore of our Festival in the Desert program, we sifted through our archives, and found some of our original reporting from 2003, when we were on hand to watch three unforgettable days of music unfold at camp in the deserts of northern Mali. Given the tragedy that is currently unfolding in Mali, it stands as a reminder of a more hopeful period in the nation’s history.

Camping out with the royalty of Malian music in the Sahara Desert north of Timbuktu under a sky full of blazing stars ….meeting new artists from Mali, Mauritania, Niger and beyond, and being invited into their tents to film informal music sessions… seeing ten superb groups a night perform over a three day marathon…and being able to bring back highlights for our Afropop audiences…it doesn’t get much better than that!! Without a doubt, the third annual Festival in the Desert in Essakane, Mali, this January was the most thrilling music festival experience of my life.

Just getting to the Festival of the Desert was a three-day adventure. The first legs of the journey covered familiar air space–New York to Paris to the Malian capital Bamako to Timbuktu in the north of the country. But then we drove northwest of ancient Timbuktu in a caravan of “quatre-quatres” (4x4s) across the rolling desert terrain. No road, just a track in the beige sand that suddenly turned into a fine pearl white. We passed groups of blue-turbaned Tuareg men heading to the Festival on their sprightly camels. Those camels! What dandies decked out in their Tuareg leather finery! Every toubab (“white person”) amongst us seemed to fall under their spell.

\We arrived a day early at the Festival in the Desert’s magnificent site, spread over gleaming white sand dunes under a cobalt blue sky. The Afropop team, led by Banning Eyre and myself, right away started running into artist friends like Haira Arby from Timbuktu, Ali Farka Toure from Niafunke, Oumou Sangare and Lobi Traore from Bamako, and Tinariwen from Kidal. They all had their own Tuareg tents staked into the sand and we got a flood of invitations to come visit. Mali high tea here we come!

Our friend Barou Diallo, who plays bass with both Ali Farka and Afel Bocoum’s groups, introduced us to Malian artists unfamiliar to us including Bocar Madjo from Goundam (half way between Timbuktu and Niafunke), and a wonderful young singer named Baba Djire from nearby town of Dire. Over the next four days, Banning and I would visit the tents of familiar and emerging artists to film and record their groups performing informal, acoustic sessions and to interview them. Whenever a group started to play for us, local kids would flock to the tent opening and watch intently.

We camped a hundred yards behind the main stage, underneath a dune emblazoned with charcoal fire pots and next to Tinariwen’s tent. Tinariwen is a trail-blazing guitar band, hugely popular with local Tuareg folk. We first reported on this group from the Musique Metisse Festival in Angouleme France last May. Their debut CD, The Radio Tisdas Sessions (produced by Festival participant Justin Adams) earned our Top Ten Afropop Worldwide honors for 2002. Tinariwen’s guitarists played around a camp fire near their tent that first night. A group of thirty or so people clapped and swayed in the dark. The next morning at 7, a Tinariwen guitarist practicing long, loping lines was our wake-up call. Burning the candle at both ends was the order of the day for everyone it seemed–just too much great music and socializing happening to sleep much.

One of the goals of the Festival is to give local Tuareg some media and music production experience and some paid work. A twenty-something by the name of Alpha found us at our campsite that first afternoon and rattled off his resume: “I’ve worked for Japanese television, German television, Radio France International.” OK. You’re hired. His buddy, Ali, was soon presented to us as the “guardian” to watch over our stuff. Young Ali wore a bright yellow t-shirt sporting a huge image of Osama bin Laden. Hmmm, an Osama fan as our security detail…that’s rich! I joked with Ali about Osama not liking Americans. He said with some embarrassment and discomfort, “It’s only a t-shirt!” Still, I couldn’t stand that face in my face so I gave Ali one of my precious “I love New York” t-shirts and he immediately changed. Later, a young guy by the name of Hama sold me a Tuareg blanket and soon made himself invaluable as the production assistant to relieve Alpha while he scouted out our next artists to interview. The Afropop team had quickly grown to five.

The official opening of the Festival was marked by speeches by local officials. Most impressive were the improvised comments by Mali’s new Minister of Culture, Cheick Oumar Sissoko who is also a renowned film-maker. He asked everyone to look around and to appreciate the diversity around us. And indeed, the two thousand or so local people, the couple hundred toubabs (“white people”), the artists who had made the trek here from Mauritania, from Niger, from Europe and North America to participate in the Festival, all made quite a beautiful tableau.

Having the official support of the Malian central government for the Festival of the Desert–a celebration of Tuareg culture and community–is also politically significant because the new administration of democratically elected President Alpha Toumani Toure is making big efforts to include Tuaregs in his cabinet and resource planning. Tuaregs in Mali have a tumultuous recent history over the last 25 years of droughts killing their flocks and nomadic way of life, followed by separatist revolt that ended only in the early 1990s, after rebels battled government troops and much suffering befell northern Mali. Happily, the region is now at peace.

The first group to perform was Awza, a traditional Tuareg ensemble featuring the tehardent lute and singing and clapping by about twenty men and women. They looked magnificent in their turbans and shiny gowns. The audience was ringed by 200 or so camels and their Tuareg masters decked out in their finest. Camels, like dolphins, appear to have a perpetual slight smile (except when they’re spitting and groaning and slobbering), and I could swear that the camels were listening and enjoying the music!! One by one, hot dog camel drivers trotted out their trusty steeds in front of the stage and coaxed them to walk on their knees on the sand. Now the camels were not smiling, but they performed their act professionally.

Haira Arby, “the Nightingale of the North” from cosmopolitan Timbuktu where Tuareg and Songrai and Peul people live together, performed next. Haira had starred at Afropop’s Mali Magic 2000 Tour soiree in Timbuktu two years earlier when we arrived with Bonnie Raitt, Habib Koite, Barou Diallo, Hourana Samake (Salif Keita’s star kamelengoni player) and a couple dozen Afropoppers. Haira has a high, sweet voice and her ensemble features Hama Sankare on calabash and Hasi Sare on njarka (one string violin). Her dancers danced the soft, arm-swaying, hand-dancing takamba, and the crowd loved it. Haira has only two cassettes on the local market, but no international releases–she is a perfect example of a distinguished Malian artist waiting in the wings for a producer to give her a well-deserved shot at the international market. (She will be featured in our upcoming Festival in the Desert highlights on Afropop Worldwide). Hang in there, Haira!

As the lovely, extended twilight glow fell over the Festival dunes, Carabosse, a French team of fire artists, lit up the first of their nightly shows. They had placed wire mesh balls, towers loaded with charcoal, and flower pots filled with flammable paraffin around the site and across the dunes. Hundreds of fires danced orange as far as the eye could see. Most of the Africans took a break at 6 pm to pray, facing northeast to Mecca. And then at 6:30, the evening program began. Quite an impressive production really for “being in the middle of nowhere” (a frequent toubab description of the Fesitval site, though I definitely felt we WERE somewhere). The sound was clean and loud enough. The lights looked good. The smoke machine drifted ambience behind the artists on stage, decked out in powder blue, purple, orange, and lime green robes. And the set changes were impressively fast so we got a near constant stream of music.

The group Takoumbawt of Niger gave a stirring performance after dark with electric guitar play reminiscent of Tinariwen, but also fantastic costumes and dance as part of their rich stage show. Another highlight for me of that first night of the Festival was the mostly female Tuareg ensemble Tartit. Some of the members actually grew up in Essakane; some were born into the nomadic life; but the group started in refugee camps that signaled a major change of lifestyle for the Tuareg. Tartit has successfully established an international career (catch their U.S. tour this spring). The women sang in powerful unison, punctuated with ululation and playful shouts of joy. The men played guitar and tehardent. The leader of the group, Fatimata nicknamed “Disco,” was a rebel leader in the Tuareg uprising before becoming a full-time artist. Their last song was acapela, with handclaps for rhythms and a deep, guttural vocal embellishment. As rock star Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame remarked the next morning, Tartit was “splendid.”

There was very little of Mali’s Manding music genre at this festival. But a strong blast of that flavor came into a lively set by singer Fantani Toure, who is Peul not Manding, but who uses kora, djeli ngoni and Manding, heptatonic balafon prominently in her sound. Fantani, who is also an actress and comedian, came through with a high-energy romp that ended with wild, hair-flailing dancing.

Next, Wassoulou diva Oumou Sangare gave a rousing, classy performance even though she was under the weather with a cold. Her virtuoso guitarist, Baba Salah, from Gao (downstream on the Niger River from Timbuktu), gave Oumou’s band a northern flavor. She performed hits including “Ko Sira” and “Malado”, and for the finale, Oumou commanded Ali Farka Toure on stage to dance his graceful takamba with her band on the song “Wa Yeina.” Ali beamed proudly as he sliced the desert air with his hands. In my mind, I could hear him say, “Je suis tres content, tres content! Je suis tres fier, tres fier!” (“I’m very happy, very happy! I’m very proud, very proud!”) as this grand champion and international ambassador for the previously overlooked musical traditions of northern Mali must have felt very pleased that the world had trekked all the way here to enjoy his culture.

A couple of bands that night especially rocked the young folks in the audience. One was Blackfire from Arizona. These are three young Navajos–more precisely Diné–two brothers and a sister from the Benally family who sing passionately about the earth and history and power and taking charge of your life within a 1980s sounding punk rock idiom. The Tuaregs jumped up and yelled and pumped their fists in the air. This was unusual as, for the most part, the local audience did not clap or emote much for the Festival performers. Just not their style, I guess.

Another popular group with the youth was Adama Yalomba whom we first saw two years ago at the Afropop reception for Bonnie Raitt in Bamako. He’s got a bigger band and fuller sound now. He plays balafon and also a calabash, string instrument he created himself. And the guy can dance! His last number in a funky 6/8 rhythm crested powerfully and had the crowd asking for more. Not to be. No encores at this Festival. Lots of artists waiting to perform, and the directors kept sets on schedule. As much as I would have liked longer sets from some artists, I appreciated seeing so many performances on any given night.

The next morning, after not much sleep, Banning and I trekked to the “VIP camp” to have breakfast with U.S. Ambassador Vicki Huddleston. Turns out she had to postpone that until the next day but we did drop in on Robert Plant who we had struck up a friendly relationship with upon arrival at Bamako on the same Point Afrique charter flight from Paris. Robert gave us a short but rich interview (see full interview transcript from Afropop.org homepage), telling us stories about his visits with fellow Led Zeppelin star Jimmy Page to Berber festivals in Morocco in the early 1970s. Robert spoke eloquently about his attraction to “the blue note” and the “vocal dips” and the passion of the performers he witnessed. He also raised issues about the contradictions he saw in the Festival i.e. “a lot of gasoline for what?” meaning a lot of money and energy was being spent on the Festival that I gather he thought could be spread out over more time and people. But he seemed to be loving the experience too. And what a riot! The guy is very funny. When we mentioned that Bonnie Raitt had joined us for Afropop’s Mali Magic 2000 Tour in 2000, he exclaimed, “That woman has had more Grammies than I’ve had hot meals!”

Following the curious sport of sand hockey in the late afternoon played by guys whacking stubbornly on a large ball of dried skin in the sand, much to the howls of laughter from locals, the 6 pm break for prayers took place, preparing for the second night of concerts.

This second night of the Festival of the Desert showcased international artists who each in their unique way collaborate with Malian artists. First up was California based singer-songwriter Markus James whose latest collaboration, Nightbird (Firenze), with Malian virtuoso musicians recorded in Timbuktu has won critical acclaim and airplay on Afropop Worldwide. Joining Markus was Hamma Sankare on calabash, Hasi Sare on njarka , and Solo Sidibe on kamelengoni. They call their group Markus James & Timbuktoubab. This combination of Sonrai and Wassoulou musicians and sounds is a first, as far as we were able to tell. They call one of their characteristic grooves “Wassonrai.” They played a great set despite technical difficulties with not being able to hear themselves well on stage. The next day Markus told me he was determined to do a free concert for their friends back in Timbuktu. We’ve subsequently heard they had a fun, successful show in Independence Square with over 200 people grooving to Wassonrai.

Italian keyboard man Ludovico Einaudi did a set with young Malian kora lion Ballake Sissoko. I was drawn away to the Festival bar, oddly enough about a seven minute walk from the stage over the dunes, where I heard from BBC radio producer Roger Short that BBC radio personality Andy Kershaw was engineering a jam between el maestro, Ali Farka Toure, and Robert Plant. Around a campfirefire. Robert worked over some classic blues lines, and a few from “Whole Lot of Love,” over Farka’s free flowing improvisations. Sweet.

The French group Lo’ Jo came next on the big stage. This group has played a key role in creating the Festival of the Desert, and they’ve earned an enthusiastic local following. I only caught the last part of their set, as I got seduced by the Ali Farka Toure-Robert Plant campfire jam on the dune, but Lo’ Jo was spirited and energized.

Mauritanian singing star Aicha Bint Chigauly wowed the crowd with her soaring voice and playful stage antics. She comes from a women’s griot tradition and accompanies her singing in Arabic accompanied by the Mauritanian woman’s griot harp, the tidinit, and a wide, shallow drum.

I was doing my media thing right near the stage, filming and taking digital photos, when Aicha swayed over my way, staring intently at me. I read her lips: “You! Dance with me!” I looked around to see if I was suffering from mistaken identity but her locked gaze left me no choice. I abandoned the tools of my trade and, still wearing an arm sling for a broken collarbone from a car accident four weeks earlier, I raised myself onstage and started dancing my version of takamba with her. She pulled on my long blue turban draped around my neck and I goofed as the obedient male dancing devotee. The crowd went nuts! They loved it. For the next two days, dozens of Tuaregs and toubab strangers approached me to say, “Tu danse tres bien!” (“You dance very well!”). The next day when I visited Aicha at her encampment, I joked with her, “You are my professor of Mauritanian dance. You’ve made me a star!” She laughed. What a lovely person.

Aicha Bint Chigauly has a CD on the international market. She told me it features her traditional acoustic sound. She also has a pop version that you can probably find on cassette next time you’re in a Sahelian country’s cassette stalls. Hey! How about bringing Aicha to the U.S?! You can tell she has me under her spell.

Around midnight, the Blackfire artists from Arizona performed Navajo dances. The highlight was when the 69 year old father, Jones Benally, a champion hoop dancer, danced a hoop dance while his sons and daughter chanted and beat a common drum. The Tuaregs loved it.

And then came the crowd favorite as far as I could tell…Tinariwen. The teenage girls standing next to me laughed and screamed and sang along. Tinariwen is a shifting artistic ensemble. The heart of their sound is the interplay of three guitarists over Tuareg rhythms. They dress in full-length blue and purple and brown robes and turbans. What an impressive look! This time out, the women singers we saw at their Musique Metisses Festival showcase in France last spring were not performing. Later we heard they were sick and could not make the journey from Kidal, the Tuareg community 600 kilometers to the east where most of the band is from. I missed the women’s vocal element as it added a rich texture to the male lead singing, but Tinariwen was still powerful, boosted this time by the addition of trap drums, not usually part of their lineup. “Hypnotic” and “trancey” is how some of toubab colleagues described their reaction to Tinariwen.

Capping the night was Afel Bocoum and his group. Afel is a protégé of Ali Farka Toure who lives in Niafunke too. We had seen Afel open for Ali Farka Toure on his “last U.S. Tour” in the late 1990s (let’s hope that’s not true!). Afel’s band featured some of the same players we’d heard earlier in the night with Markus James and the day before with Haira Arby i.e. Hamma Sankare on calabash and Hasi Sare on njarka. On one song, he invited Afropop’s Banning Eyre to sit in on guitar and even take an impromptu, desert-inspired solo. Afel is a multi-lingual artist capable of playing in several regional styles but the heart of what he does, like Ali, is Songhai music. And his band’s combination of bluesy acoustic guitar and indigenous string and percussion instruments plus Afel’s soulful singing was outstanding. Afel sings in Ali’s band and there are rumblings that the two may tour again. Stay tuned…

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