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Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali

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Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I’ve been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Désert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival’s cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can’t come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what’s happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is its North American associate. A little background information may be in order. The first Festival au Désert was held in 2001. However, its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year.

The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek. Their traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. Festivals were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meetings had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races, and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world.

The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate “La Flamme de la Paix” (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3,000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in Tuareg living conditions.

Ironically, and sadly, this year’s festival has been cancelled because once again violence has erupted in the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012’s festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full-scale and well organized uprising. However, it soon became apparent that this one was radically different from previous Tuareg revolts. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture. This time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.

For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered at his website Andy Morgan Writes. As manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen Morgan helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today.

Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is that there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and a nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali – known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Sharia law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida’s funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes, and people) and money laundering. All these are activities which would appear to be in contravention of Sharia law, but as we’ve seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali’s ambitions weren’t just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Sharia law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg’s interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion, as they were the only group with funding. Ghali was to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty-stricken areas of the world, there’s nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali’s followers’ beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian, and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year, they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move south towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Sharia law saw the banning of all music and forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert, the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to Intalla’s vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida-backed forces have fled the battlefield doesn’t mean they aren’t around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere, they have merely faded into the background, awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but no one knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating the Al Qaida-backed forces is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.

In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February, it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his “kinder gentler” version of Sharia law – he says some music will be tolerated as long as it’s not obscene – it’s doubtful his vision will become a reality. He’s currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine, and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview that if you don’t want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That’s not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French, or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and the conflict’s revival of old tribal disputes within the region, the fate of this year’s Festival au Désert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan, organizers had hoped they might be able to move the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place, that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified, the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way anyone’s safety could have been guaranteed under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone, there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage-taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida’s penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on the proceedings, wouldn’t be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the U.S. and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations, and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Sharia law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it’s true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he added we shouldn’t underestimate the impact the imposition of Sharia law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially – he posed the question, imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned – this is a part of the world where history and cultural identity are kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe’s history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture’s traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.

However, as Nolan said and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it’s what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali – and the other countries in Tuareg territory – forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have guaranteed the Tuareg land, rights, and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans, these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure that all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or that the terms of the old ones are being implemented, Such guarantees might be enough to convince people it’s safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people are given evidence their lives will improve, then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won’t be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won’t have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Désert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. “It’s one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time…It reminded me of why I sang in the first place,” said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, it is also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize, as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels – rebels against Islam – in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Sharia law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, the Tuareg are still the region’s flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won’t be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Désert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates, it has been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Désert at its home near Timbuktu, and that music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.