Africa and the Middle East – Festival in the Desert

Festival in Desert (1)


Essakane, Mali


Early January

How long?

3 days

Every January since 2003, growing numbers of foreigners have joined around 3000 Tuareg nomads to camp among the sand dunes of Essakane, northern Mali, for a shindig of music, dance, and camel racing. By world-party standard, it’s a small, even low-key affair; but the spectacle alone make it well worth the effort of travelling all the way to Timbuktu and beyond. For the Tuareg, many of whom have ridden their camels for weeks to get there, the Festival in the Desert is as much an opportunity to get together and discuss social and economic  issues as it is an annual music festival. For outsiders, the festival offers a unique chance to meet these intensely independent people and learn about their traditional way of life, to sit among them under the stars and listen to some of the most electrifying, rhymthmic live music you’re ever likely to hear.


The Festival in the Desert as it is today is a relatively recent phenomenon: the first one took place in January 2001. But its origins date back to pre-lslamic times when tribes of Tuareg nomads first gathered together in the desert to exchange news, settle disputes, race camels and entertain one another with their swordsmanship, music, singing and dance. The festival also has strong links with the Tuaregs’ long struggle for freedom and basic rights. Tuaregs, or Kel Tamasheq (people who speak Tamasheq) as the tribes of the southern Sahara prefer to be known, are an independent people who for centuries lived by herding their camels and goats across the sands, trading in salt, gold and slaves from West Africa up to the Mediterranean. Theirs is a prolonged history of resistance, from the early days of French colonisation through almost four decades of brutal repression – armed fighting finally came to an end with Mali’s gaining of independence in 1996 when, in a public square in Timbuktu, a crowd of ten thousand assembled to watch the symbolic burning of three thousand weapons laid down by Tamasheq rebels and the Malian army.

During the period of conflict leading up to independence – centred, mainly, on the government’s ineptitude in trying to unify the country’s many ethnic groups, especially the now semi-nomadic Tuareg – many rebels were forced to take refuge in neighbouring countries, some fleeing as far as Libya where they were welcomed as recruits for Ghaddafi’s revolutionary training camps. It was in these camps that disaffected young men such as Ibrahim Ag Alhabibe, founder member of the award-winning band Tinariwen, first took up the electric guitar. By the time the peace accord was signed, Tinariwen had developed quite a following, and returned to base themselves in the Kidal region of Mali, east of Timbuktu. As they started also gaining support in Europe, a revival of the traditional gatherings in the Sahara was underway, under the auspices of a local Tuareg association, EFES; it was out of these events, encouraged by growing foreign interest in Tinariwen’s compulsive “desert blues’’, as well as other forms of Malian music, that the idea for an international desert festival was born.

The original festival was attended by Mali’s prime minister and many other dignitaries, an estimated two thousand Tuaregs and around eighty foreigners, most of them journalists, photographers and film-makers. The following year, a second, smaller festival near the Algerian border was disrupted by a sandstorm, but by 2003 there was enough momentum to support a highly successful three-day event on what has become a permanent site at Essakane, 65km north of Timbuktu. That year, Tamasheq artists such as Tinariwen and the renowned women-led group, Tartit, performed alongside some of Mali’s best-known stars, including Oumou Sangare and the late great Ali Farka Toure, not to mention England’s Robert Plant. Since 2005, the number of international names has perhaps diminished but the festival continues to attract the likes of Amadou and Mariam, Tinariwen and the wonderfully versatile guitarist Habib Koite, as well as lesser-known performers from neighbouring Guinea, Niger and Burkina Faso.

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