Quite possibly the most difficult festival to get to on earth, certainly the most fun, The Festival in the Desert is held at Essakane every January. Head for Timbuktu and when you have reached the middle of nowhere, keep going for a few more hours of treacherous driving up and down sand dunes and you have the festival that makes Glastonbury seem about as adventurous as a trip to the local garden centre
Everyone you meet has a story about how they got there. Abdullah, an impossibly charming Tamashek (Touareg) boy has travelled with his family for two weeks on camel back. Hugh has come all the way from Kilkenny in Ireland by motorbike, meeting up with an Aussie called Sean who has been doing the same trip in reverse starting in Cape Town.
Cicily has come from Texas by way of Doha, where she works with Al-Jazeera – a name to drop in these parts. She was on the same clapped out Russian plane as I was. Complete with cockroaches walking up the walls and baggage spilling down the aisles, mysterious black outs and the occasional smell of burning drifting through the cabin. Others have come up the mighty River Niger on pinasses, while still others have driven from far-flung parts of Europe.
See photos of the Festival au Desert
A tiny settlement for 362 days of the year, Essakane has the highest plumbed toilet to person ratio for thousand of miles in any direction, a legacy of the festival that has done more to boost awareness of the Tamashek people (and add a healthy boost to the local economy) than a thousand well-minded tracts on these noble but welcoming people.
I came across people who lazily assumed that the festival would be too touristy now, while the reality is that it is massively Tamashek. Complete with camels, livestock, 4x4s and the rest. Tourist numbers are capped to ensure that the festival remains a predominantly local affair with an international flavour.
The locals get a way to boost their personal incomes showing off their famed entrepreneurial skill, plus the chance to meet far-flung clan members, resolve issues in impromptu conferences and the opportunity to see a stellar cast of international and national musicians who would never make it to the northern part of Mali. Even music from other parts of the country must seem impossibly exotic for some of the audience and the reaction from nomad and traveller alike shows the value of the festival.
Everyone is awe-struck by Bassekou Kouyati on ngoni. It’s like hearing the sound of a thousand strings conjured out of a mere three-stringed cousin of the guitar
The running order is hopelessly adrift at all times, Salif Keita fails to show (not for the first time), the mark up on bottled water is borderline usurious, little burrs called kram-kram with painful thorns stick to your clothes and the toilets, well let’s just say the ratio does not hold good for the festival itself. Somehow it only goes to emphasise the miracle that is the Festival in the Desert. Pretty much every band does make it, and having made it they play their hearts out on stage — and often before and after too in the Tamashek tents all around.
Rarely does the stage go quiet before three in the morning and one night it goes way past that as Habib Koit?© does not even get onto the stage until four in the morning. Tinariwen, who as a band of Tamashek rockers, embody the festival’s dual nature better than anyone got a little squashed between the overruns and the need to get Habib on stage before his vocal fan group got too rowdy. When an artist like Habib plays in the west, he is treated as a serious artist, reverentially listened to and enjoyed. Here he is also a pop sensation and the fans want him on stage right now.
The flocks of mutton and goat that start the festival are picked off one by one over the days as diners leave the makeshift cafes with greasy chins and the smell of barbecued meat in their lungs. Butchering on the spot gets round the lack of refrigeration in these parts but a cold beer is still possible as the ubiquitous 4×4 is converted into a makeshift generator for what soon becomes the most popular tent.
The second night of music is given over to a lengthy tribute to the late Ali Farka Toure. A truly stellar line up of musicians have taken the cockroach plane shuttle to pay their musical respects. Toumani Diabate plays his kora but — cruelly — he is limited to just a song or so. Afel Bocoum (Ali’s chosen successor) also gets to play just a few tracks but he will come back the following night for a blinding set of his own. The highlight of the festival for many happens this night, with Oumou Sangare taking the stage and beguiling everyone before she manages to overwhelm herself and leaves the stage overcome. On paper, the night reads like a who’s who of Malian music but the frequent and lengthy stage changes make the night stutter and shunt when it should flow and swell.
More successful are the fuller gigs of the first and last nights. While many have come to the festival to see a chosen idol like Oumou or Toumani (or of course Salif), it is often the others that leave the deepest impression. Everyone is awe-struck by Bassekou Kouyati on ngoni. It’s like hearing the sound of a thousand strings conjured out of a mere three-stringed cousin of the guitar.
The hole left by Ali’s absence is soothed a little by the wonderful and charming Afel Boucoum, whose take on the famous Malian desert blues is the nearest you are going to get now to hearing the spirit of Ali Farka Toure. For those who stayed up, Habib Koit?© vies with Baba Salah for an all out good time concert, there under the stars of the Saharan night.
A variety of lesser known Tamashek bands like Tartit (who have a great album out on Crammed Disks) and Terakfat get a chance to share the stage with bigger names and invariably make a lasting impression by adding the visual theatre of sword play in sumptuous robes to the rich multi-part music of these nomadic people. While most bands number half a dozen at most, none of the Tamashek groups go on stage without filling the stage to the brim. Those used to seeing up to eight members of Tinariwen on western stages may be surprised to see what looks like nearer 30 layered on to Essakane’s stage.
This year, a few smaller bands from the States and Ireland add to the mix but no-one as remotely well known as Robert Plant or Damon Albarn graces the stage. The press list also shows that the Anglophone press has moved on, herd-like to other pastures. In other words, the Festival in the Desert has grown up and will now be news for its music and not for its novelty factor.
The next Festival au Desert will be held in the middle of January 2008. Air France and Royal Air Maroc fly to Bamako via France and Morocco respectively. Alternatively, contact Pointe Afrique, which has flights direct to Timbuktu via Paris.
This year I paid about ¬£500 for a return ticket to Bamako from London. The shuttle plane was a further ¬£100 one-way through the festival website and access to the festival costs about ¬£100 (‚Ç¨150) too. Free for Malians.
See photos of the Festival au Desert