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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

An Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Music of Fela Kuti: Rad­i­cal Niger­ian Band­leader, Polit­i­cal Hero, and Cre­ator of Afrobeat

Zam­rock: An Intro­duc­tion to Zambia’s 1970s Rich & Psy­che­del­ic Rock Scene

David Byrne Cre­ates a Playlist of Cre­ative Music From Africa & the Caribbean—or What One Name­less Pres­i­dent Has Called “Shit­hole Coun­tries”

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

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