Mali’s Festival in the Desert

The notion of a ‘Tuareg Glastonbury’ might seem far-fetched but each January since 2001, the desert near Timbuktu has hosted a similar kind of gathering. Mali’s Festival in the Desert is a celebration of Tuareg culture and largely Sahelian music that would have been unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago. Mud is simply not an issue though the region’s isolation, some terrible roads and minimal facilities mean the three-day event is, at least for its organisers, something of a triumph of will over logistics.

Today’s gathering has a dual pedigree. A traditional form of Tuareg gathering, or temmakannit (the likes of which had been disrupted by the rebellion), has fused with a music programme largely inspired by AITMA and Efes, Tuareg cultural organisations, and internationalised in its early years by the enthusiasm of French band Lo’Jo.

As the festival becomes more widely known and acclaimed, so it grows in popularity. Assorted musicians from Mali (among them the late Ali Farke Touré) and other countries of the Sahel, together with a few Western artists (famously Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Blur’s Damon Albarn have turned up – and jammed) lend an eclectic touch. Young Tuareg who seem to have ridden out of the 19th century are likely to stand beside hardy tourists cheering the riffs and twangs of lead guitars. 

Regular yet shifting tribal gatherings suited the Tuaregs’ generally nomadic life; how else to settle disputes, catch up with friends or family, news and gossip? They often set a de facto stage in bowl-like terrain, with an audience lolling on soft dunes gazing down at whatever spectacle might be on offer. Essakane, according to the festival’s director Mohamed Ag Mohamed Aly, is an ideal location. “It’s clean and comfortable,” he explained to me, sand running playfully through his fingers “and there’s good well water. Also, it really is in the desert…..but not too far from Timbuktu.” This fabled town – in the West virtually a byword for remoteness – is, out here, considered a reasonable hub.

...and so the show went on. When a French guitarist picked up on the bluesy threads of a kora-plucking girl from Burkina Faso, onlookers clustered tight – some vibe. Cultural integrity stiffened by late afternoon. Veiled to a man (for this is the Tuaregs’ single most defining feature) atop camels caparisoned with rugs, leather tassels and saddles with V-shaped pommels, the gleeful barefoot riders galloped and raced with near regal splendour.

In the cradle of low dunes Igbayen, a hardy-looking ensemble, regaled a crowd with hypnotic chant-songs full of vigour yet tinged with longing. By turns a few of their warrior-like contingent capered and leapt to rapturous applause, the charged audience slowly closing in and feeding off a raw intensity distilled from the band’s tone and passion as well as words.

At nightfall and backed by guitars, drums and calabashes, the rotund and almost motherly Khaїra Arby sang of love and pain, toil and war. Baba Salah, a virtuoso yet utterly serene guitarist, nimbly fingered mellifluous strains and licks that soared into the inky sky, his band framed by a pair of supple dancers who swayed with exquisite grace.

Around midnight Mamar Kassey strutted on, an extraordinary performer whose flute and posturing recalled Jethro Tull and James Brown. He bantered a bit here and enthralled us there, his lithe dancers briefly slipping away to change and reappear with easy bewitching smiles. We wanted more, and got plenty more, and when his time was up and the night done, I trudged back to camp by a long dune tinged here and there with the flickering light from fires. A man galloped away on a pony, a few couples snuggled up in the sand, and Mali had never seemed more seductive. 

© Amar Grover