‘Festival au Desert‘ as an official music event saw its first year some 11 editions ago. Back in 2001 the festival was hailed as a cultural melting pot, a unique meeting point for musical cultures.
Today this reputation stands but now it fights a battle with the advice of every foreign office in the Western hemisphere. The regions ever growing reputation of insecurity and Al-Qaeda linked activity has challenged the survival of the event. It seems the magical musical event is living through times of tension and transition but holding its heads proudly above the rough waters.
Only a day after an explosion took place outside the French Embassy in Bamako (which to the disappointment it seemed, of many commentators, was totally unrelated to the Festival), Manny, the Festival’s director, told us the festival has resisted far harsher realities than today’s challenges. A traditional meeting place of nomadic people, that predates its 2001 official birth. Year upon year the people of the desert have survived proudly through famine, rebel conflict with the government and a daily battle with the conditions of the desert. These are, Manny tells us, a people unwilling to back down.
Arriving at the festival (we were lucky enough to fly on the artists plane thanks to Bassekou Kouyaté!), we could immediately see that for so many the event was crucially about its location; traditional tents sat waiting for their arriving visitors and the dunes were glowing with the golden sunshine of late afternoon.
As we walked through the festival gate we witnessed the onslaught of four wheel drives zooming past us delivering wealthy westerners to their tents. We began to see the different faces that a cultural meeting point can show, the good, the bad and the ugly.
So lets start in reverse order, it’s always better to finish with a positive.
Owing to the difficult security situation in this region, the festival was forced to move from Essakane (a few hours drive into the desert), to Tombouctou. Naturally this caused problems for the countless nomadic people who would normally travel to the event, but more significantly it caused a huge influx of local people to enter the festival as ‘hawkers’, pushing various products into the faces of tourists.
Once more, the level of local children demanding 1000 CFA or a can of fanta proved to be a worrying symbol of the inequality on show, though not as worrying as the tourists who actually met their demands.
Resulting again from the new location, the diminished number of nomadic people had an impact on the authenticity of the festival and the music being played. Though many continued to make the long camel journey, some were unable to attend and their absence was felt by many of the nomads present.
Though we enjoyed the fantastic sounds of Oumou Sangaré, Bassekou Kouyaté and Amkoullel (all of whom we will be writing future blogs on), we were especially looking forward to the cross-cultural collaborations. But these performances left a lot to be desired.
The first was billed as a marriage of New Orleans jazz and blues with some of the finest musicians of Bamako, courtesy of US harmonica-player Jeconte. What was delivered was a prolonged jam-session which was, frankly, hard to watch. Though Jeconte’s energy and enthusiasm were contagious, few accepted his invitation to sing his “Inshallah, I love Mali” chorus. This was a painful case of a sum being far inferior to its parts.
But, as we kicked back in our sleeping bags under a blanket of stars to the sounds of Vieux Farka Touré’s desert guitar, nibbling at a taguella (local bread) and sipping a hot cup of millet porridge, we took time to reflect upon our short time at the festival.
It was then that we felt the beauty of the festival could be summarized by one encounter we had shared with a young Tuareg.
Abdullah called to us from across the dune, ‘you’re from Kaliban Koura ACI!!?’.
Confused, we confirmed his suspicion, and it turned out that we were neighbours in Bamako.
‘I am from a Tuareg family, my village is seven days away by camel in that direction’. As Abdullah pointed he went on to insist that we take a glass of tea together and led us to his nearby stall where, like so many others forced from nomadic life, he scraped a living selling handmade traditional jewellery.
Abdullah’s stall was a work of art, and as he had crossed his legs to sit down he proudly explained the way of life his family led.
‘I go to visit my family’s current village every now and then. You must understand that we are still nomadic people and in our hearts our favourite time in life is when we make a long journey by camel.’
‘A group of us go. It takes seven days and we only travel at night. Each member of the voyage has a role, for example my speciality is tea-making’. Abdullah grinned up from the tea he was lovingly preparing for us.
‘In the group there is always one expert who can read the stars, to guide us on our way to the village.’
As he continued to tell us the magical tale of desert travel and even invite us on his next visit, we had gazed around us at the strange mixture of cultures. The white man wearing a tagelmust (turban), happily accepting the folds of his recently purchased boubou (traditional wide sleeved flowing robe) standing alongside a semi-nomadic goatherder who had travelled for days to reach the desert. They stood conversing about culture, music and art.
As we had looked on Abdullah spoke the words of a tea proverb,
‘The first glass is as bitter as death.
The second is as beautiful as life.
And the last, as sweet as love.’
It was then that we realized, for all our judgments and criticisms, the good, the bad and the ugly, this was the meeting point of cultures and in that, coexisting in an atmosphere of clashes, we could see both beauty and magic.