The Festival au Desert is a magnet for Mali’s finest musicians. Ennis journalist Tom Rowe travelled to the West African country to see for himself
ARRIVING into Timbuktu after three days in a boat going up the River Niger was both a relief and a disappointment.
A relief to hit dry land and our destination; but the fabled city is a shadow of its former self. It was a centre of Islamic learning and a trade hub on the edge of the vast Sahara for centuries. Its mosque still stands and the libraries with ancient Koranic scripts are still open but the sands have encroached on the city and the heat and the dust overpower all, crumbling the mud-brick buildings. Yet it is still a hub of sorts, once a year in January catering for the thousand or so tourists who brave the trip for a music festival like no other.
The Tuareg, Mohammed, was vehement in his condemnation of the ‘Arabs’ who were ‘far out in the desert’. He was speaking of the group who call themselves Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, armed fundamentalists who have been kidnapping tourists in the Saharan region, as well as bombing cities in North Africa. “It is dangerous for me. I take salt from the mines to Timbuktu and they attack the camel caravans to see if we have tourists with us. I have seen them a lot,” he said.
He was one of thousands of Tuareg nomads attending the Festival au Desert in Mali, West Africa. His tribe is a forceful presence in the region. Their remit spreads throughout Mali, Mauritania, Morocco and Niger, desert regions where they trade rock salt and metalwork and herd animals, especially camels and goats. The men wear long, blue robes and turbans that dye their skin. They carry swords and have fine-featured faces with thin moustaches. The women are beautiful, their dark hair coverings laden with silver, their hands covered with henna designs. The Tuareg keep themselves apart from the other peoples of the countries through which they travel, but are as much a part of Mali as the many other tribes living here.
A Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s ended when an accord was reached that established an autonomous region north of Timbuktu and integrated Tuaregs into the Malian army.
The Festival au Desert was established, in part to commemorate the peace deal and in part as a traditional Tuareg gathering that tourists could attend. Held for the last nine years at an oasis called Essakane, 60km north of Timbuktu, this year the festival was moved to just outside the famous city, for fear of attack by Al Qaeda or by bandits who sell their kidnap victims on to the militants.
This fear, along with rumours of a direct threat to the festival from Al Qaeda, did not seem to dampen the spirits of the festival goers however, although the number of foreign attendees was down significantly. The majority of the audience were Malians, with all sections of society represented, from apple-sellers to Griots, the respected musician caste whose songs are passed down through the generations. Tuaregs are conspicuous for their clothes and their tendency to sit on very tall, colourfully decorated camels, looking into the distance. Sunburnt foreigners and Bambara speaking Malians from the south of the country make up the rest of the crowd.
People do not travel from all corners of the globe just to meet the Tuareg. This is, afterall, a music festival in a country where music is life. This is why the travellers come, many of them musicians themselves.
In recent years, Western musicians have taken a more overt interest in Malian music, with Damon Albarn from Blur making an album here and our own Liam Ó Maonlaí and piper Paddy Keenan making the journey to the festival to play and record a documentary. But before this foreign interest and long after it has faded, the Malian music scene was and will always be strong, original, innovative and yet always traditional.
In Tuareg music, trained men are the only ones allowed to play the guitar-like instruments. Singers in Mali still rise and fall in popularity based on whether they praise or disparage certain public figures. Among some families, to become a musician is to be ostracised, while in Griot families, it is the traditional trade and to not become one would be a betrayal.
The Festival au Desert is a showcase for many of Mali’s finest groups and musicians. This year saw Tuareg groups Tinawaren, Habib Koite and Tartit take the stage to a huge response from local fans. An equally enthusiastic response came for Amadou and Miriam.
The best of the foreign groups was The Sway Machinery, a surprising mix of West African High Life and Eastern European Jewish spiritual music from bombastic sharp-suited Americans. It has to be said that most of the other foreign performers, including Paul Simon’s son Harper, failed to set the stage alight, especially when they followed a local group.
Of course, this is Africa and the romance often ends suddenly. Hawkers of everything from peanuts to daggers repeatedly interrupt and Tuareg tea-sellers are a constant presence. A stream of passers-by ask your name and wonder if you would like a guide after the festival. The heat of the Sahara rises at 9am, waking you in your tent with monotonous regularity and sandy rice with sauce can get a little dull after three days.
These are minor complaints however against what was truly an amazing experience. The feeling of participation in a unique event, in an alien environment at the end of the earth, where ancient cultures are renewed and strengthened before your eyes, cannot be matched.
I had gone thinking that it would be similar somehow to Irish traditional music festivals such as Willie Clancy. Indeed, there are elements that reminded me of our own events, such as impromptu performances in tents and the haunting melodies that many traditional forms of music share. But to compare the Festival au Desert to anything else does not do it justice.
It is one of a kind, incomparable, and I can only hope that the violence breeding out in the desert does not bring it to an end.