There is something soporific about a long river journey. On our boat up the Niger River, the hypnotic sound of the engine, the lapping of the water and the slowly revealed scenery along the river banks, were only occasionally interrupted by a stop for lunch or to visit a riverside village. It was good to get off the boat, stretch our legs and wander around some of the wonderful communities along the river. Everywhere we went, people were friendly and welcoming.
Our journey was punctuated by stops to buy fish and other foodstuffs for lunch and dinner, but when we reached Niafunké we were in for a surprise. Niafunké, a small town approximately 200km from Timbuktu, was the hometown of legendary Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, before his death in 2006. One of his albums is named after the town and he recored several albums here. He farmed nearby and even became the mayor of Niafunké. We spent a couple of hours stocking up at the bustling riverside market, wandered along the town’s dusty streets and, best of all, visited Ali Farka Touré’s family home.
It transpired that our guide, Ali, was a family friend. We were ushered into the house to meet family members, and to admire all the memorabilia of one of Mali’s truly great musicians – a man who, more than any other, brought Malian music to the attention of the world. Ali Farka Touré is, quite rightly, revered in this part of the world. His music reflects the people and landscapes of this region, and as you pass through it you can see why it provided inspiration for his music.
We were headed to Essakane and the Festival au Désert, so a stop in Ali Farka Touré’s hometown was essential preparation for the musical wonders that awaited in the Sahara Desert. We still had a lot of river to travel before we reached Timbuktu, and our onward journey into the desert. We left dusty Niafunké and, as the sun started to set, went in search of a suitable place to camp for the night.
In 2012, when Islamic fundamentalists fled from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, they took control of this vast region of Mali and subjected it to Sharia law. An unlooked for consequence of Western policy to remove Gaddafi from power.
For about a year they held total sway over the lives of Mali’s much more tolerant Sunni Muslims, with their long standing Sufi traditions which permit spiritual expression through music and poetry – one reason why Ali Farka Touré’s music is so important in this region. The Islamists took control of Niafunké and, along with many other things, banned the playing of music. An utter tragedy for the people of this region which will take years to rectify.