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Festival au Désert: Still in Exile, Again

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The acclaimed Festival au Désert was scheduled to return to Timbuktu this year, although all the preparations were kept secret due to ongoing security concerns. Unfortunately, the festival has now been canceled by Malian authorities after suicide bombers attacked a military base outside Gao, killing over 50 people and wounding over 100.

Afropop Worldwide covered the Festival au Désert since its founding in 2000, and our producers attended the Festival in 2003, documenting the epic three days and nights of beautiful music with a full-length radio documentary, featuring live sets from Tuareg superstars including Super Onze, Tartit and Tinariwen. This program, recorded during one of the highlight years of the Festival au Désert, is a testament to the hopeful vision of Malian unity and international exposure for Tuareg artists.

Listening to this program now, with the knowledge of all the strife that would come to the region in proceeding years, leaves us with nostalgic sadness. When we re-aired this program in 2012, it seemed most urgent to support the utopian goals of the festival. Writing at the time, we noted:

The Festival in the Desert continued successfully, growing each year, until January 2012. For the past three years, as security concerns in the region mounted, the Festival was moved from Essakane to Timbuktu. This year, 2012, with a record international crowd and Bono in attendance, the festival literally ended as Tuareg-led forces armed with heavy weapons from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi were moving forcefully into the area. The festival was not disrupted, and visiting attendees left unharmed–but it was close. Today, radical Islamist forces control Timbuktu. They have declared Shariah law and banned music, so, obviously, there will be no 2013 Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu. But festival organizers are not giving up. Plans are in the work for a safe alternative.

Since then, the festival has been in exile, so to speak, with organizers and artists waiting for a chance to return to the northern Malian desert. Sadly, the wait continues for now.

When Afropop returned to Mali in 2016, it was an optimistic moment: A 2015 peace deal had returned some sense of stability to Mali, which had been embroiled in uncharacteristic chaos, violence and uncertainty since the crisis of 2012. We attended the Festival Sur le Niger in Ségou, which heavily featured Tuareg musicians from the Timbuktu region. Producer Banning Eyre documented the vibrant discussions there in a Afropop Closeup podcast, “Talking Peace in Mali:”

To better understand the events of 2012 and the ongoing conflict in Mali, we suggest our 2016 Hip Deep program, “The Tuareg Predicament in Mali,” in which Banning explored the complexity of Tuareg identity and the economic and cultural roots of of the Tuareg rebellion, and delved into the issues of drug trafficking, Islamic extremism and French intervention in the North.

We will keep watch and keep you updated with news from northern Mali… Until the next Festival au Désert! See you there.

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