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Blogging Backwards- Festival in the Desert, Part 2

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.

The last day of the Festival in the Desert for the Afropop team started with a hike across the dunes to the VIP encampment for a morning interview with U.S. Ambassador Vicki Huddleston. The ambassador explained to us that the Tuareg Eriday family had been asked to truck spacious traditional tents from their Tessalit, hundreds of kilometers away, to the site for the dignitaries attending the Festival, including the Ambassadors from France, the U.S., Norway, Mali’s Ministers of Culture and Tourism, and others. Fabrics decorated the inside walls and a crimson carpet was spread over the sand inside. Nice digs! By the way, the Eridays were hoping for some compensation for their effort, but they may have ended up like so many of the people who made this festival happen: volunteers.

Ambassador Huddleston’s past postings include several musical islands near and dear to Afropop, most recently in Cuba where she was the head of the U.S. interest section in Havana, and before that Madagascar. She was eager to talk about a major current project they are helping out on to bring Mali’s cultural life to the National Mall in Washington DC this summer as part of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I told the Ambassador this project was of paramount interest since not only do I love Malian music but I grew up in the DC area and the Folklife Festival was always a highlight of my summer, including one of the very first Festivals in the early 1970s, when as a young kid, I saw kora master Alhaji Bai Konte from the Gambia play kora and sing. Wow! All that music from a 21-string instrument! And what a warm, gentle, gorgeous voice! My older brother and sister and I went up after his concert to chat with Bai Konte and to touch his instrument. We bought his record, Kora Melodies from the Gambia, and played it over and over. That experience was the first inspiration for the whole Afropop project, which began over a decade later. So props to the Smithsonian, and to the muse, Alhaji Bai Konte, rest in peace.

Ambassador Huddleston took off in a small convoy of 4x4s on her way back to Bamako, accompanied by two heavily armed Malian army guys. Banning Eyre and I walked to our next interview with Mali’s impressive Minister of Culture, Cheick Oumar Sissoko. He had moved me with the words he spoke at festival’s opening ceremony, words about the beauty of Mali’s diversity so evident at this Festival in the Desert. Minister Sissoko is a renowned film-maker first and foremost so he knows all about the struggle to make one’s art. He spoke with great excitement about reviving the tradition of the Biennales from the 1960s and 1970s in Mali where music and dance groups from all over the country competed for regional and national honors. This was the time of Modibo Keita in Mali and Sekou Toure in Guinea when state support of indigenously based arts helped these newly independent countries find their own voice and share it with the world. The first national Biennale of this century will take place in Bamako in September and Afropop hopes to be there.

Next stop was an Afropop tent session with two young singer songwriters from the Timbuktu area. Male Toure plays guitar in Haira Arby’s band, and his friend Baba Djire was recommended to us by bassman and producer Barou Diallo. Barou said, “You’re going to hear about this guy,” and given Baba’s sweet, high voice, he may well be right. The two singers shared a small ensemble featuring guitar, a traditional lute, and a single percussionist. Baba Djire’s song “Agabori”–Sonrai for “that’s beautiful”–was particularly memorable. The title is a phrase that Ali Farka Toure first taught me when he hosted our Afropop group in Timbuktu in 1998. (It turns out many musicians we met at the Festival remember vividly our two Afropop visits to Timbuktu–the first in 1998 and the second in 2000.)

As we finished this session, I was late for an interview with Aicha Bint Chigualy, so Alpha and I ran off to find her while Banning stayed behind to interview Sekou Maiga, leader of the group Nabi from the Niafunke region (Ali Farka Toure’s hometown).

I spied Aicha barreling across the sand in her 4×4. She was obviously upset with me for being late. But she pointed northward and said, come to the Mauritanian encampment and we can talk there. Turns out that worked out fine since they had a lovely camping spot under thorny shade trees that made a great backdrop for our film interview. She played her traditional griot’s harp, tidnit, and sang and told me her
story about growing up in a griot tradition and then going on to make a pop band, while still maintaining her traditional role as a griot at wedding celebrations and so on. Mauritania gets almost no exposure on the international stage, so it was great to meet to some of the country’s leading artists here at the Festival.


The heat of the day hit hard by around 11:00 AM and continued until well past 3:00. Most Festival goers lay low during this time, but this was our last day and we had to boogie to track down that last minute interview, and also to confirm the plan for our transport back. We learned that we would be moving in our convoy of 4x4s back to Timbuktu at 2:00 in the morning, as soon as the last concert ended that night. It seemed that the Tuareg camel drivers sensed this was a time of emotional leave-taking also. After the races ended, a large contingent of them trotted their beasts up to a prominent dune ridge in the warm late afternoon light, just in time for all of us visitors to get souvenir snap shots. A few ridges over, groups of 20 or 30 black robed Tuareg women sat in a circle and clapped and sang. No one wanted to go home yet.

The much anticipated set by Robert Plant and his group opened the last night of concerts. Robert was accompanied on electric guitar by Justin Adams and on acoustic guitar by Skin, plus a bass player and percussionist on loan from Lo ‘Jo. They sounded great! Robert Plant spoke to the curious Tuareg crowd in a mixture of French and English, but mostly he communicated through song. He did a cantering version of the Bob Dylan song “Girl from the North Country,” and a smoldering take on the Led Zeppelin mega-hit “Whole Lotta Love.” The Toubab baby-boomers in the crowd smiled at each other, marveling that we were alive and kicking in January 2003, under the Sahara Desert sky grooving while Robert Plant howled out “Whole Lotta Love” How cool was that ?!

Next up was the man from Goundam, Bocar Madjo whom we had filmed at an Afropop tent session on the first morning of the festival. His band was smoking. And the two women who sing chorus and dance almost stole the show with their eye-batting flirtations and hip gyrations. The highlight of the set was djurou djurou , a dance rhythm from Goundam that Bocar has popularized all over Mali. Bocar told us there are two types of singers in Mali, those who sing homage to people and those who sing to advise people. Bocar is definitely in the latter camp, encouraging kids to work and young people to protect themselves against SIDA (AIDS), above all, through abstinence, although condoms were mentioned too…

I missed Tarbiat, a guitar band from Niger, and Nabi featuring Sekou Maiga, although Banning gives both the thumbs up. Of the three bands from Niger, he rates Tidawt number one. Sekou Maiga takes a songwriter’s approach to Songhai music, and he’s garnered a considerable following since he debuted with a cassette called Timbuktu 2000.

I got back to the main stage in time to see Lobi Traore and his lean, four-piece band crank up the energy. Lobi plays a tough, blues-edged lead electric guitar. Back in Bamako, he is the darling of working class folks who like to dance deep into the night at popular nightclubs. Not your five-star hotel cover band. No, no, no! Half way into his too short set, Lobi exhorted the mostly Tuareg audience in French to get up and dance. They did.

Super Onze de Gao, a classy, fabulously-adorned takamba group, followed Lobi. Several of us danced the graceful, arm dance imitating the masters on stage. The festival-closer, Ali Farka Toure, is a fanatical fan of takamba, and he came on stage writhing and grinning, making his way slowly through the undulating dancers, savoring their time on the stage probably more than anyone. And then it was his turn to regale the gathered with his world-famous guitar playing and singing. Ali brought a large group to the stage, including a veritable chorus of singers. The set was delayed for awhile with technical and tuning problems–Ali might want to reconsider his aversion to electronic guitar tuners–but when they got going, they played classic songs from the Ali Farka Toure repertoire, often slow, always deep and powerful, despite the tuning issues. Ali’s protégé, Afel Bocoum, is doing a lot of lead singing with the band now. Backed by Afel, three other singers, another acoustic guitar, bass (our man Barou!), and calabash, Ali emanated a resonant, chiming sound into the desert night.

At around 2:00 AM, as the final notes of Ali’s set rang out, the MC, Harouna Barry of Mali’s national television station ORTM made an ominous announcement: “All Tuareg Tours people (that meant me!), go meet your driver. The vehicles depart in 15 minutes.” That barely left time for a few hurried good-byes backstage, and then our convoy of 25 vehicles drove across the desert to Timbuktu like bats out of hell. Our trusty vehicle reached Independence Square in Timbuktu at 5:00, and guess what? The town petrol station was not yet open, so our drivers made a fire in the sand, we cranked up the music and waited for sleepy Timbuktu to wake up and fuel us.

Banning and I were lucky to be in the first wave of 4x4s that drove on from Timbuktu to the Niger River ferry crossing. Robert Plant’s jeep was next to ours and we played dueling soundsystems…they were blasting Amadou & Mariam, and we blasted Ali Farka Toure. The road from the ferry crossing at Korioume toward Mopti was rough going–very bumpy. We were all exhausted so we nodded off, heads banging and bashing into hard objects. (Just great for yours truly, nursing a broken collar bone!) But we made it to Mopti in time for sunset on the Bani River. The comfort of a hotel was sweet, and in the morning, Banning and I had time for our favorite Mopti shopping ritual–a visit to Peace Corps Baba’s shop in Sevare. Finest bogolon and Tuareg jewelry this side of the Niger!

Then it was on to Bamako the next night, where the highlight was dropping in on Djelimady Tounkara and family at their compound in Lafiabougou. This is where Banning lived in 1996 when he was studying guitar with Djelimady and gathering material for his book, In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali (Temple University Press//US and Serpent Tale Press//UK). The Tounkara twins who we last saw as eleven year olds have sprouted up to be tall thirteen year olds, and formidable soccer players. Djelimady’s wife, Adama, cooked us a delicious African chicken dinner and we discussed world affairs with Djelimady’s brother, Madou, just like old times. The consensus in the Tounkara compound was that if the U.S. attacks Iraq, we will loose a lot of friends in Mali. Fair warning!

Flying back to Paris on the charter flight that left Bamako at six the next morning, I spoke with several Festival in the Desert participants about their personal stories of the Festival. Some had come to the Festival by camel caravan, others by boat down the Niger, still others by 4x4s. All of us were exhausted but exhilarated by the experience. Many people spoke about trying to make a return visit next year.

But will there be a next year? Remember that virtually no one from the promoters to the artists to the organizers were paid anything for the massive effort they put into making this festival happen. There are many interested parties, notably the Tuareg community leaders and the volunteer organizers in Europe. They’ll all need to ponder what went on during these three extraordinary days and decided what’s in the cards for the future. The fact is that most of the artists and all the professional people behind the scene–organizers, sound crew, logistics people, etc.–donated their services, so the Festival in the Desert for 2003 effectively ran on good will. We hope the Festival in the Desert attracts more institutional support next year so that it can continue to grow, hopefully without loosing its warm, community vibe.

Finally, Banning and I and our Afropop support team back home in New York say a big thank you to the organizers and to all the wonderful artists at the Festival in the Desert. Special thanks to Andy Morgan, Philippe Brix, Rene Goiffon of Harmonia Mundi USA, Manny Antsar or the Kel Antessar Tuareg community and EFES, Hamou of Touareg Tours, our excellent drivers Ablo, Papa and Lamine, the visionary musicians of Lo’Jo and their producer Justin Adams, Patrick de Groote of the Sfinks Festival, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Lawrence of WorldLink TV, and that most jovial of Festival participants, Robert Plant.

Cheers! A la prochaine….Insh’Allah…

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