The Festival au Désert is possibly the most atmospheric music festival anywhere in the world. With a backdrop of the towering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, it has a truly dramatic setting unmatched by any other festival I know of; it showcases the best musicians from Mali and West Africa; and it attracts people, from all over the world, to an event that is the living expression of the culture of the nomadic Tuareg who inhabit this desert landscape.
It is a tragedy then, that when Islamic extremists took control of this region in 2012 and imposed Sharia Law, the 2013 Festival au Désert was cancelled. When I went to the festival four years ago it was held at Essakane 70km into the desert, and it was the experience of a lifetime. In 2010 the festival moved to the outskirts of Timbuktu due to security fears. Hopefully, the festival will return again to its traditional desert home. When it does, it will be a symbol of the resilience of the people of this region.
For anyone interested in the musical traditions of West Africa, or who just likes beautiful music, the Festival au Désert is a necessary pilgrimage. Traditional Tuareg music is pure voice-and-percussion, hand clapping accompanied by soulful vocals full of meaning and cultural richness. Although Tuareg musicians use traditional drums and stringed instruments, the most famous musical export from this region the music of Tinariwen, the internationally famous and Grammy Award Winning Tuareg guitar band…here’s a taster from their Aman Iman – Water is Life album.
The main festival stage comes alive at night, but the real joy of the festival is coming across musicians playing amongst the sand dunes during the day. Sometimes people are out in the open playing, while at other times you’ll walk past a Tuareg tent packed with people listening to (and joining in with) musicians. Several times I was beckoned inside a tent to listen to some extraordinary music.
To give an idea of some of the music, I’ve added some tracks from Takoba (the name for a traditional Tuareg sword), a group I heard in a tent one morning as I wandered around…the music was recorded in a makeshift studio and, unless you happened to be there, its unlikely that you’ll ever get a chance to hear this music.
As well as some of the most mesmerising music you’ll ever hear, the festival is a gathering for Tuareg from all over this vast region. Although 4x4s are pretty common, mainly bringing tourists, they are far outnumbered by camels ridden by brightly clothed Tuareg. Throughout the festival camel riding Tuareg can be seen everywhere, and at times they gather to race the camels and participate in other traditional activities. It makes for an extraordinary experience.