an image to enlarge.
By Saturday I have become somewhat accustomed to being
woken up by the sound of camels grunting right behind my tent; of
stumbling out to be greeted by the sight of Touaregs parading around
nonchalantly on their camels, their brightly coloured robes and
swords glinting in the searing desert sunlight, and of the legendary
Touareg hospitality involving numerous invitations to drink the
obligatory ‘three cups’ of Touareg tea*
During the day on Saturday I come across members of the group Amanar
entertaining a small crowd with an impromptu jam session outside
a tent. The festival is not only an opportunity for Malians to see
some of their favourite super-groups, but is also an important showcase
for up and coming unsigned bands such as Amanar, who already seem
to have a strong following. Their sound has echoes of Tinariwen,
tinged with reggae; modern, but unmistakeably Touareg…
The non-African international artists at the festival are an eclectic
mix, including Dick and Hnatr - an authentic Kanak group from New
Caledonia; Dady Dasty – a rap group from Martinique; Skullroots
from Norway, with an unusual take on the jews harp; the Leni Stern
Band (USA), and Harper Simon (son of Paul).
The idea of Hebrew cantorial vocals may sound like an unlikely
choice for a festival in the Sahara, before a largely muslim audience,
but New York band Sway Machinery deliver an extraordinary performance,
and Jeremiah Lockwood’s haunting vocals, together with an
impressive bass saxophone seem strangely at home amongst the desert
blues. As if to emphasise this mellow blending of cultures, the
band joins the great lady of Timbuktu Haira Arby on stage and they
jam as if they’ve been playing together for years….
The band are due to record their next album in Bamako with Malian
musicians, which promises to be a rare musical collaboration.
Other treats on Saturday night include a gymnastic Michael Jackson
tribute band, rap group Double K Non, and from Niger; Mamar Kassey
and the marvellous Koudede, with his own brand of superb desert
blues. And this has to be the first festival I have attended where
announcements from the stage include lost camels….(!).
The evening is rounded off by a blinding jam session led by Cheik
Tidiane Seck and his band of highly accomplished musicians and singers.
The band provide support for stunning performances by Habib Koité,
Kasse Mady Diabate, Mangala Camara, and the always excellent Amadou
and Miriam, who had been eagerly awaited by the crowd, and finally
took to the stage around 3.00am.
The Festival au Desert was listed this year among many major events
celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Independence of the Republic
of Mali. I am sure that everyone who attended – including
over 600 foreign visitors - would agree that despite the huge challenges
faced by the Festival organisers due to the withdrawal of most of
their western financial partners, it was an unqualified success.
For the many visitors from western countries this was a unique opportunity
to experience Touareg music first-hand, and to make connections
with people from a culture we would never otherwise get the chance
to encounter. The journey from Bamako was not for the faint-hearted,
involving some very poor roads and a lot of dust and heat. But after
a weekend of astounding music; several stunning desert sunsets;
numerous conversations in the sand dunes, and more cups of Touareg
tea than I can remember (!) this was without a shadow of a doubt
a journey well worth making.
*The first; bitter like death,
the second; mild/soft like life, the third, sweet like love’
( = ‘Le premier; amer comme la mort, le deuxième; doux
comme la vie, le troisième; sucré comme l’amour’)….
© Alice Mutasa