Tag Archives: desert

Festival au Désert 2011: a year of transition…

Camel race

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.

Camel race 2

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.

Dune 1

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.

Children: it’s not hard to get a following at the Festival

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.

Jeconte 1The 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.

Festival au Desert

Les Onze de Gao 2

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.


Festival au Desert


The road to Nouakchott

Time had passed us by faster than we had realised, it was the 2nd November and as we opened our eyes to the same grotty walls of our hostel room we contemplated another day of waiting and searching for a lift through Mauritania before our visas expired. Our bikes sat unloved in the garage while we pined for them as we began our daily round of asking truck drivers if they were Nouakchott bound. Lunchtime came and went and our spirits were sinking, we had been informed that owing to a major lamb festival (and national holiday) that was nearing no sane minded truck driver was going to get himself stranded from his family in Mauritania. Finding it difficult to argue with the ‘not wanting to miss the party’ logic we began to consider other options. But luck was on our side…

We spotted the beautifully painted trucks of Lise and Tony from a distance, we had met them in El Aaiun (Western Sahara). What we couldn’t communicate via the blog was that our French friends had organised to be smuggled into a nearby camp of Sahrawis (‘refugee’ camps in Western Sahara are tightly controlled by the Moroccan military).

Tony and Lise were in trouble, whilst their time at the camp had been immensely constructive, the material they had filmed had hit the French and Spanish press along with their names. The police, gendarmarie (special police) and military had now been following them since they left the camp, so they were even more pressed than us to reach Mauritania. By the time we met with them we were at the border and it only took our acquaintance to ignite problems with the police. Though we had finished all the border formalities and had our passports returned the police confiscated them and began to question us on our relationship with the French.

A 14 year-old boy had been murdered in the camp, shot dead by the Moroccan forces. The achievement of our friends and the risk they had accepted in circulating evidence was huge. When you see such injustice, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, so we knew we had to do whatever we could to help our friends. So as their vans were meticulously searched, we made out to be happy-go-lucky tourists who simply adored the jokes of the police.

After what felt like an eternity of waiting in the sun we were reluctantly given our passports and together we crossed into the stretch of no-mans-land, which was ironically quite a relief. We passed the sand piste and its famous land mined surroundings without a problem and made our way through the bureaucracy of the Mauritanian side. But a few hours later, it was all over and as the heat of the desert cooled to welcome us the evening closed in while we pitched our tent in Nouadhibou.

Now after some sweaty driving time in the breath taking scenery of the Mauritanian desert we have taken a day off the road in Nouakchott the capital city. Here we are enjoying the hospitality of the Association de Development et de Promotion des Droits de l’Hommes (Association of Development and Promotion of Human Rights) who today took us to a human rights conference of all the countries of the Maghreb region. There is so much we would like to write about the conference today but we are so frustratingly limited by time!

Our stay here is too short, our visa has already expired and we must now leave whilst we can pass the border ‘in transit’ to avoid hitting enormous overstay taxes. There is so much more we could and eventually will get around to writing but for now we have a musical meeting in the city before we leave tomorrow for the border of Senegal at Rosso where we will cross the river Senegal and end our cycle break at long last!

Tan-Tan to Akhfennir

Cycling away from Tan-Tan we pedalled towards the enormous hill that almost growled in our general direction. But somehow we were in high spirits, our time with Mustapha and his family had been a perfect start to our desert journey.


We had decided to cycle as far as possible and to set up camp just before sundown. But by lunchtime we were making great progress and having covered a solid 60 kilometers we spent the afternoon heading towards Akhfennir, according to signposts only 40 km away.

However, some 40 km later we were met with a rather bleak looking checkpoint.

‘How far to Akhfennir?’, we questioned with smiling faces.

‘Another 20-25 km’.

The smiles slipped from our faces. The thing is the idea of
wildcamping never really bothered us, but when you have been cycling along blissfully imagining the cold wash and hot fried fish at end of your day, suddenly the thought of a bread/cheese triangle supper seems less desirable.

We gave each other a glance. Did we really want to cycle another 20 km? Well, whens food is at stake the answer is always yes!

The fried fish was worth every sweaty moment, freshly caught and served steaming hot we took no time in demolishing a rather over sized salty monster.

Mikaela got invited to fry the fish herself

We ate with Boujemaa, a friendly local park ranger who welcomed us to the town and offered us a place to sleep.

‘This is the best fried fish you will find here’, we we in full agreement with our generous host who had already insisted on buying us drinks and naturally pouring us a strong glass of sugary tea.

Fully fed we crashed soon after dinner, legs and bums aching after a long day in the sun. We were invited to join Boujemaa for some breakfast and set up so beautifully for our day of cycling we hit the road, with a small audience of supporters cheering us from the roadside.