Festival in the Desert (2)
It’s not for nothing that Mali’s best- known musical event is billed as the most remote music festival in the world. Set among the sparsely populated sand dunes of the southern Sahara, this musical bonanza is not easy to get to: after reaching the mythical outpost of Timbuktu (an adventure in itself), expect another three hours’ gruelling off-road travel to Essakane. As you near the festival site, the landscape abruptly changes to a startling expanse of rolling white sand. It’s the height of Mali’s dry season at this time of year and the sky can seem as pale as the sand, with the sun hidden by a veil of dust. Against this bleached-out backdrop a single, arched gateway welcomes crowds of Tuareg tribesmen in richly coloured robes, their heads swathed in turbans, standing about chatting and laughing on camels bedecked with tassles of yellow, red and turquoise blue. Occasionally there’s a yell, and a couple of riders break free of the group, swords aloft, to race away, reins and robes flapping, over the sand. All around, families have set up camp with their goats, donkeys, pots and pans – the lucky ones pitched beneath one of the few acacia trees that dot the landscape.
Inside the gate, once you’ve been allocated a tent in which to dump your bags, it’s fairly easy to get your bearings, but making your way over the sand dunes can be hard going. Most of the daytime action takes place in and around a shallow, natural amphitheatre marked by an opensided tent and brightly coloured rugs spread out on the sand. Here, if you can ignore the banks of foreign photographers, there’s still a sense of this being an indigenous event, with Tamasheq musicians – using traditional instruments such as the ngoni (forerunner of the banjo) and the upturned calabash – and dancers performing for each other. Tall and graceful in immaculate blue, white and green robes, swiping their swords in the air, almost in slow motion, they skip and sway to the music, never seeming to put a foot wrong. Camels dance, too, though it’s more of an uncomfortable shuffle as riders force them to drop to their knees and edge along in front of the cheering crowd. As with most of the festival, it’s the audience – impossibly cool tribesmen in designer-style shades, women in colourful clusters with their naked babies playing in the sand, resting camels gazing haughtily over the horizon – as much as the official performers that make this such an extraordinary event. By night, the temperature drops dramatically and focus switches to the main stage, at the far edge of the site, away from all the tents, where, against all odds, the festival’s main acts pump out a dazzling mix of sounds spanning traditional Kora music, wild drumming from neighbouring Burkina Faso, hypnotic singing from Tartit, and the highly popular African soul of Amadou and Mariam. Each year brings another unpredictable line-up, but you can usually catch some of Mali’s greatest musicians, from the deeply resonant desert blues of Tinariwen and Afel Bocoum to the blistering guitar rifs of Baba Salah. Scattered over the dunes in front of the stage, braziers filled with burning charcoal provide flashes of light as well as welcome warmth, which slowly dies out as the desert rocks on towards dawn.