Blog September 19, 2012
Blogging Backwards- Festival in the Desert, part three
                At the end of the recent 10th edition of the Festival in the Desert in Mali, festival director Manny Ansar was relieved and elated. A perceived security threat had caused the festival to be moved from its usual location at Essakane to Timbuktu. This turned out to be fitting as the city is celebrating its own 1000th anniversary. And this being the 50th anniversary of Malian independence, it was a special year to attend all the way around. In his concluding press release, Ansar said that the festival had accommodated 40 live acts, 600 foreign visitors, 76 non-African journalists, 50+ technicians, government ministers, and of course, many, many Malians—all without incident. Ansar thanked a “discrete and virtually invisible” Malian Army presence for being on hand to make sure there were no problems. But what about the music? For that, we turn to our colleague Chris Nolan. Afropop Worldwide is proud to have reported on this festival since its beginnings, (though we have not made it there ourselves since 2003, alas…) The 10th edition took place on January 8-10, 2010. Here’s Chris’s report and photos. Some of this material appeared previously on the Afropop blog. View Chris's interview with Festival Director Manny Ansar. View all of Chris's videos from Festival in the Desert 2010. January 5, 2010 The legendary Festival au Desert is about to begin. Proud to be marking its 10th Anniversary, this year's site has been located closer to Timbuktu to take advantage of the multiple celebrations scheduled to be held commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Malian Independence as well as major cultural events programmed by the City itself for the occasion. The Festival has overcome many challenges due to the risks of holding any event in the North of Mali today. The Festival's 2001 founding was based on peaceful conflict resolution through cultural exchange and the preservation of a culture extremely affected by climate change and geopolitical forces outside of its control.   The three day Festival is a significant economic development activity for this impoverished area. Western governments have up until this year helped with financial support. With this year's edition that support has been withheld. That last minute loss of funding has brought significant stress to the organizers. The actions of a small criminal element are being used as a justification for these Western actions. Even these financial and geopolitical challenges are not dampening the excitement that is building as the Festival begins to take shape. Stage platform, sound equipment and light along with water, food and tents are en route. Caravans of 4x4's and camels are converging on Timbuktu for the official opening on January 7th. A pre-departure party is to be held tonight at the home of Vieux Farka Toure where many of the musicians and organizers will gather for a toast towards a successful 10th Anniversary Festival au Desert.   January 7 As the sun began to set in Timbuktu, the 10th edition of the Festival au Desert began with full evening of exceptional entertainment in front of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic audience broadcast live over ORTM, Mali's national public television channel. Welcoming remarks were given to the Festival-goers by the Mayor of the City and his remarks were echoed by the governor of the region.  The Minister of Culture, Hon. Mohamed el Mohctar, spoke on behalf of everyone when he summed up the meaning of the Festival: bonheur; paix et securite. As a taste of things to come the opening ceremony was capped by short performances from Habib Koite, Africa Percussion, Super Khoumeissa Band, Beley J, followed by the grand lady of Timbuktu, Haira Arby:  Then the ceremonies were adjourned for a short dinner break.   The city of Timbuktu, a short walk away from the new Festival site, saw crowds of people walking through its dusty streets each day.  Opening the evening program on the main stage was 7 Etoiles de Dire followed by Groupe Folklorique Bellafarandi. Both groups were in the traditional desert style.  Then Fantani Toure took the stage and riveted the crowd with her clear, griot-style singing.  Her red outfit clearly matched the hot style of her group.  A Bambara superstar, Fantani sang directly to the crowd and they responded. Fantani was followed by a group from the South Pacific nation of New Caledonia, Dick and Hnatr, who sang of their own colonial experience with France.  The next singer was the American Harper Simon who sang an acoustic set of contemporary US singer songwriter material.    Then the group Skullroots from Norway brought the crowd to its feet with their unique use of the jews harp and hand drum.  Their simple yet emotionally varied music resonated through the audience.  They were followed by Tiale Arby whose style of contemporary Malian singing brought the program back to Africa.  This mix of cultures was a significant part of this year’s program.  The final group of the evening was the now world renowned Tinariwen.  Their set lasted for over an hour and was wildly cheered at each song.  Repeating his trademark phrase ce n est pas un catastrophe, Abullah led the group through a strong set that was energized and at the same time relaxed by the desert venue.  It is always a clear advantage to hear a band among its hometown fan base.  This set closed the evening and the crowds drifted back to either the tents among the dunes or the hotels and houses of the City.   January 8 The second night began with Annane Sy followed by Groupe Folklorique Niafunke, traditional acts of the region.  They were followed by Terakraft, a great Touareg band whose style is similar to Tinariwen’s, though they make the desert blues entirely their own.  They drew great response from the audience.  Following them was Dady Dasty from Martinique whose reggae style was a hit as he sang in French about the Caribbean experience. The next performer, Rhissa Ag Wanagli, brought the more melodic Touareg style of Niger to the audience.  Deemed by many to be one of that country’s superstars, Rhissa sang and played the guitar backed by a superb group.  His music brought the audience back to the desert and the Touareg experience from across contemporary national borders. Next came the famous Tartit.  Led by Disco (Fadimata Walett Oumar) their singing was strong and they changed from the traditional to contemporary style during their set demonstrating the versatility and development of contemporary music.  Unfortunately the sound system was not balanced for both styles and that detracted from their considerable musicianship.   The next performer, Deacon from the American group Animal Collective, also had a sound problem during his set.  His music featured electronics that were not well balanced by the sound crew but nevertheless he launched into the set fearlessly.  This was new music to many and it was interesting to see the eagerness of the crowd to understand what he was doing and their appreciation of the effects and colorizations he achieved as a solo performer.  No doubt we will be seeing this demonstration of electronica in future bands from Africa as they seek out the wonderful sounds and bending that Deacon was able to achieve. Leni Stern, also from New York, followed Deacon. She was accompanied by members of Salif Keita’s band with whom she has been recording in Bamako.  Her spirit shone through as she led this awesome band through her set.   The next performer was Bassekou Kouyaté whose ngoni performance is always masterful.  Bassekou is a true bandleader now, and he gave space for the members of his group to shine during the set.  His wife Amy Sacko sings with the band and her voice rang out over the audience to the driving music of the band.  Festival attendee Marian Leth from Denmark termed it swinging music as the upbeat grooves spilled out one after another from Bassekou s fingers. The night was capped by a showcase for Ali Farka Toure led by the famous Afel Boucum and Ali Farka s band.  Beginning with the masterful playing of Afel, one after another the superstars took the stage to sing Ali Farka s hits.  Babah Salah, Baba Djire, Haira Arby, Vieux Farka Toure and Ali Baba Cisse brought the evening to a close at close to 5 in the morning!  But everyone stayed to hear the performers play the songs of the master.   January 9 As the sun rose on Saturday, it was clear that the Festival au Desert was again a tremendous success. Just the fact that it was being held at all was an achievement. The first two days of music were a cultural mix from all regions of Mali and West Africa as well as the world. From New Caledonia to New York, musicians had played on until late in the night. This last day’s program promised to be equally exciting and anticipation held the crowd waiting for the show to begin. In the early evening in one of the tents a remarkable collaboration occurred as the American group, Sway Machinery, had a jam session with the Malian band from the city of Gao, Super Khoumeissa. At the outset, their music couldn’t be more different but as they played together a wonderful melding occurred. Super Khoumeissa has a unique sound that immediately hooked both Animal Collective and the Sway Machinery. As Jeremiah Lockwood, the leader of Sway Machinery put it, their sound is a “unique interaction with amplification technology that spins traditional music and repositions it into the realm of hardcore electronica.” The horns of Sway Machinery lent a chromatic depth to Khoumeissa’s already reverberating buzz, and Lockwood’s guitar playing melded perfectly into the mix. The groups made an arrangement to record together in Bamako a few days after the Festival ended so we’ll have to wait to hear what comes out of this meeting in the sands.   The evening program began with Double K Non, a rap ensemble from Kidal in northern Mali. This young group showed the influence of contemporary French rappers and the clever melding of languages, meter and meaning. They were a hit with this young audience. Followed by Groupe Folklorique de Rharous, the evening promised to be hot and no one was disappointed. Next, the Niger band Mamar Kassey played a shimmering set. They were followed by the incredible Haira Arby. Tombouctou is her home town and the crowd was ecstatic. Haira encourages young musicians and her band is made up of some excellent young players. As Josh Dibb from Animal Collective put it: “She is a pro as a singer and bandleader who lets everyone shine.” She delivered a set that rocked the crowd. Sway Machinery joined Haira for one of her numbers and together they showed how music can span all boundaries. Haira didn’t miss a beat and blended the whole thing together. She will also be recording with Sway Machinery in Bamako.   This type of collaboration and cultural boundary crossing is one of the great promises of this Festival. First and foremost come the connections made among the various Malian acts—letting groups from the south of Mali hear the sounds of the north and letting the northern groups share their perspective with the south. Bringing the rest of the world into the event broadens the potential for peace, cooperation and collaborative development. This is one of the missions that Ali Farka Toure, one of the founders of this Festival in 2001, always envisioned. After Haira’s set, the great Koudede and Hassou from Niger took the stage. Their desert blues style is melodic and rhythmic. They immediately had the crowd swaying and dancing along. Making it seem effortless, Koudede’s vocals were clear and strong bringing emotion and depth to his music. The band was tight.   Koudede was followed by Sway Machinery’s own set. They were strong and energetic. They brought the audience into their groove within seconds. While Lockwood sang singing in Hebrew, the Muslim crowd respected the music and showed its appreciation by dancing along. Haira Arby joined the group for their final song and showed once again her mastery of music. She was immediately in the groove and brought her own authenticity to the number. After a brief awards ceremony, the evening continued with an amazing jam session led by Cheick Tidiane Seck, an early member of Bamako’s legendary Rail Band who has gone onto a long career as a producer, arranger and musician in his own right. With a multinational band with members from the US, Mali, Senegal and elsewhere, Seck’s band was tight and hot. They accompanied a series of soloist who came out to sing. Among them were the inimitable Habib Koite. Habib’s guitar playing and singing brought down the house. He is infectious as a personality and musician. Also playing were Kasse Mady Diabate and Yacouba Moumouni of Mamar Kassey, vocalists with incredibly strong voices and impeccable delivery.   What came next was a treat for the crowd as Amadou and Mariam, who had been patiently waiting backstage for their late night set came out in gold fabrics. They’re good energy shone through even brighter. They sang a version of their recent hit changing the lyric to “Dimanche a Tombouctou” and the audience went wild. The evening closed with the very popular singer Mangala. His straight ahead songs were a perfect way to end the evening and the Festival.   As the dawn began to glow in the distance, the audience drifted back to their tents and houses. The Festival had hosted amazing performances over its three days and had brought people from around the world to the Malian north. Mali’s cultural richness was apparent in the range of musicians who performed, and the country’s openness to the music of the world was clear in the warm reception given to musicians from other countries who had braved the arduous journey to reach the site. It is not an easy trip but hearing such a range of music in the desert and in such diverse company makes it absolutely worthwhile.   This year, “Tombouctou/Timbuktu the mysterious” celebrates its 1000th anniversary as a city with its incredible history of learning, science, religion and commerce. The Republic of Mali celebrates its 50th anniversary of Independence from France. And the Festival au Desert celebrated its 10th anniversary with hopefully many more to come. There are significant challenges. A video interview with Manny Ansar, the Executive Director of the Festival, begins to discuss some of them. Geopolitical and climate change forces are bringing great stress to the north of Mali and to the Touareg people. Their story was and continues to be the basis for this Festival. We will all see how events evolve.



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