The Awe-Inspiring But Tragic Story of Africa’s Festival In The Desert (2001-2012)

“Mali’s gifts to the world of music are lavish and legendary,” Nenad Georgievski writes at All About Jazz, though the world knew little about Malian music until American musicians began partnering with players from West Africa. In the 1980s, Stevie Wonder began touring with Amadou and Mariam, helping to popularize their form of Malian blues. In 1994, Ry Cooder recorded and released Talking Timbuktu with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, whose “desert blues… was unconcerned with boundaries,” freely mixing languages and instrumentation with playing that drew comparisons to John Lee Hooker.

While audiences around the world encountered West African music as “world music” on the festival circuit, fans on the continent knew it as homegrown traditional sounds and contemporary African rock and pop. In 2001 they got the chance to gather for the first annual “Festival in the Desert” (Festival au désert) in Tin Essako, a rural village miles from the highway, as the Bandsplaining video above tells it. This brief explainer of the Festival’s impact and its tragic end in 2012 begins with references to Bono. But his role in the story is rather small.

More central are the Tuareg, or Kel Tamashek, nomadic people of Berber origin spread across several West African countries whose musicians have refined the sound of desert rock and turned it into rebel music. The sound was born in struggle, notes World of Music, in refugee camps and battlegrounds. The band Tinariwen — who formed in 1979 and have become “global musical nomads” since the first Festival —  met in “military camps set up in Libya by Colonel Ghaddafi to train young Tamashek men how to fight. During the [Tuareg] rebellion Tinariwen became the pied pipers of the rebel movement, and their songs galvanized the young dispossessed Tamashek youth.” Then they turned to seeking peace at the Festival in 2001.

Put together by Tuareg organizer Manny Ansar, the Festival was “based on a centuries-old tradition,” notes PeacePrints, “a meeting where the Tuareg tribes of the region meet once a year to play and share music.” By contrast, the modern Festival included ethnic and tribal groups from all over the country, and the world, and “focused on bridging the gap between tradition and modernity and also between local custom and international cometogether.” It was the only festival of its kind in Africa and attracted thousands of African attendees and a few hundred visitors each year.

Tragically, the festival came to an end in 2012 when Tuareg rebels took control of Northern Mali, renaming it Azawad, and were overrun by Islamic separatist groups. The country was placed under Shariah Law, and Ansar was exiled to Burkina Faso for a time. Outside of his own country, he continued to promote peace by co-founding a traveling festival called Caravan culturelle pour la paix.

The artists represented at Festival in the Desert tell stories of the fusion of tradition and modernity, of brutal conflict and the hope for peace through the sharing and fusing of cultures. Mali may be one of the poorest countries in the world when it comes to material resources, but it is one of the most musically rich. “Mali has many people, living in their districts,” say one musician in the trailer above for the documentary film The Last Song Before the War, “but everyone comes together in this festival.”

Or, at least, they did until 2012. The filmmakers unwittingly captured the very last Festival in the Desert before it was shut down by militants who “ruined the material, plundered the stage, burned instruments,” says Ansar. “I had to go on…. It was no longer a question of festivity, but about the survival of a culture.” See his statement at the time in the “Festival in the Desert — In Exile” video further up. For a totally different view of the Festival, read former MTV exec Tom Freston’s account of traveling there with Jimmy Buffett, Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records), and a handful of other industry bigwigs scouting the next West African sensation.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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