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.