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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
Desert

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.

Timajaghen

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.

Sunset

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.

Bassekou

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.

Abdullaye

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.

Silouhettes

Festival au Desert

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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.

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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.

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Hamam in Tan-Tan…

Soon after we had cautiously loaded our bikes onto a coach in Essaouira, our stomachs were put to the test on windy moutainous roads leading to Agadir. But this mild discomfort pales compared to the exhaustion we would have felt had we cycled.

Our original plan was to spend one night in Tan-Tan in order to get right back onto the road following a few days off. But as soon as we met Mustapha, who we found on couchsurfing; we knew we would have to prolong our stay. By the time we’d unloaded our bikes and panniers, we’d already been introduced to his
brother, Nourdinne, and soon we were sipping tea with his mother, another brother; cousin, sister and brother-in-law.

‘Here we say that when we have a guest, our house becomes his house and we become the guests’, says Rachid, the youngest of the brothers.

Dinner

puppyAfter dinner, the conversation turns towards the British love of animals. Before we knew it, we were receiving animal deliveries; a couple of tortoises, a rabbit and a puppy plucked from the street.

The following day was a treat for the senses: we spent most of the morning in Mustapha’s spice shop, looking at the herbs, spices, oils, remedies and soaps, trying to think of cunning ways of carrying them on the bikes and failing.

In the afternoon Rachid invited us to visit the Hamam. Excited at the prospect of a good scrub we were quick to accept the invitation.

Rachid, sesitive to the fact that I would have no way of communicating with the women who work in the Hamam (men and women naturally have seperate rooms), spoke with them beforehand to explain that a European would need babysitting.

Taken by the hand a plump Moroccan woman undressed me in the business fashion of a stressed mother. Leading me to the hottest room of three the exfoliation began. Using traditional soaps that Mustapha provided from his shop she scrubed my skin to a shade of raw pink.

Occassionaly she raised her head and showed me the rough mit, originally black it now accepted the colour of the first layer of my skin, she would tut dissaprovingly of my lazy exfoliation habits and then continue at the hard grind.

Whilst a little tough on the skin the experience was actually rather wonderful. I think I had made the false assumption that women lacked social time in Morocco. Its very easy to see men in the streets sipping tea and chatting all day, this brought both Imran and I to feel that women were somehow deprived of this of time.

There is, however, something rather sweet in being proved wrong. Seeing the women of the Hamam working together and bathing in the same rooms with no inhibitions brought me to realise how intimate the friendships between women are here. I felt a sense of a sisterhood as I was roughly undressed. Feeling rather exposed and a little sheepish I wished for a moment I had not accepted the Hamam invitation, but just then, as I felt so shy and out of place, the young woman next to me had spoken softly and with a smile said simply,

‘Bienvenue au Maroc’.

The beauty of Gnawa music…

With the advice of the gimbri carver we met in the park yesterday we take a bus towards the Kasbah of the Udayas expecting to hear some gnawa music in a concert like venue.

Using the Moroccan GPS we make our way towards what tranpired to be a private address in an old part of the city. As we grow closer to te house the location of the music we were looking for becomes very clear. The rhytmic crash of the krakebs hits the night air and stops us in our tracks, this was unmistakable sound of Gnawa music. We take timid steps closer to the house where we are spotted looking intrigued and are swept into the house through a large timber door. The building, an old riad style house has an open terrace carpetted with traditional rugs and littered with Moroccan antiques. The walls tell the stories of history, swords and daggers, gold leaf paintings with pensive looking warrior characters. The terrace is cushioned with satin pillows and low laying intricately carved tables. In the welcoming palm of each table and cushion sit ornate silver teapots, the smell of their sweet mint tea filling the air.

The intoxicating sound of the Gnawa music is encaptivating and as we stare around the room in awe of the scene sorrounding us it felt as though we might be beautifully invisible. No one is stirred by our unusual presence. We are not questioned as to why we have come. Each individual seems caught in their own moment, the hypnotic rhythm of the krakebs and the soulful tone of the gimbri.

 

Gnawa music is ancient in its origins, and there are intertwining influences between West African music and the Gnawa tones. Descendents of Sub-Saharan slaves the Gnawa are well known for their traditions of trance like music. The krakebs have an intoxicating effect on the mind, and it’s easy to see how it can induce a trance state. The empowering volume alone is impressive, but it’s the rhythm that tricks the mind. Rhythms are either a loose 4/4  comparable to samba, or a 2 against 3 feel. Short in cycle, you subconsciously hear a different rhythm each time.

A break arrives in the music and we are invited to sit with the musicians who are keen to tell us more about their culture.

‘The thing you must know is that the music we play is a pure form of Gnawa, there is nothing commercial in this. This music is part of our belief system and the people who have come here today are here to heal spiritual ailments.’

The gimbri player, Sadiki sits next to us and prepares his hashish/tobacco mixture before puffing gracefully at a long wooden pipe. Next to him the three krakeb players sip their mint tea quietly and listen to th conversation nodding in agreement at intervals.

‘We are here weekly and local people know of our music and this house. They come here specifically to be healed.’

The break is over and they return to sit and play. Many moments seem to have passed us but we are unaware of how long we have been sat for. Slowly, one by one, the people around us crawl towards the musicians. In trance they move to the rhytyms, shaking their heads, crying and swaying from side to side vigourously. The women who work and live in the house cover them in silk scarves of seven different colours (representing the seven different spirits) and for every person who joins more incense is added to the smoking embers.

The music seems to reach a climax but then draws back again before entering a series of prayers, then another series of songs are played. Finally, as each participant calms and their movements simmer the music so too follows, more prayers are said and a break is taken.

The musicians again join us for tea, this time they are grinning in our direction as they humourously stretch out their hands and fingers, they have been playing now for some 45 minutes continuously.

‘This will continue all night. You see, we are not simply playing songs, every piece is part of a complex set of musical passages which we must finish playing. We will be here all night.’