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Music Review: Various Artists – Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu

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Near the end of February 2013, I wrote an article outlining the situation in Northern Mali and how the ongoing armed conflict had forced the cancellation of the annual Festival au Desert. This music and cultural festival has been held since 2001 in one of two places in Northern Mali to commemorate the peace treaty negotiated between the Tuareg tribesman of the region and the Malian government.

The dates it’s held on in January of each year also coincide with the traditional gathering of the various tribal groups of Tuareg whose territory stretches North into Algeria and to Niger in the south. For such a scattered and nomadic people, these annual gatherings were an opportunity to resolve any differences that might have come up during the year between tribal groups and to make plans for the coming year.

The modern version of the festival started off as a celebration of African culture, specifically the people of the Sahara Desert region but also surrounding countries as well. Since 2003 it has gradually expanded to include acts from other parts of the world with major pop stars like Robert Plant and Bono taking part. With the rest of the world not being able to come to the festival this year, organizers have been working out various means of bringing the festival to the world. They are attempting to book various acts to tour both North America and Europe during the summer and fall of 2013 for special Festival in Exile concerts. Already shows are planed as part of Chicago, Illinois’s fall music festival season and across the sea in Norway during November.

In an attempt to give people an idea of the type of music they can expect at these concerts, the festival is releasing the CD Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu on April 30, 2013, on the Clermont Music label. Recorded during the festival in 2012, the disc gives listeners an example of the incredible diversity of music and musical styles on offer at the festival. From artists who are well known throughout the world like Bassekou Kouyate (master of the ngoni), members of the renowned Tuareg band Tinariwen playing with the Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia and also with Bono last year – the latter collaboration didn’t make the cut here unfortunately – to groups playing traditional chants from Mali.

While the title of the disc includes the word Timbuktu, the festival wasn’t actually held in the city, it’s just merely the point of entry for those wishing to attend. Instead, it was held a couple of hours’ drive out in the desert, far from the city. Pictures of the festival site show a stage set up in the bottom of a naturally occurring bowl in amongst the sand dunes and scrub brush of the Sahara. Camels and land rovers dote the surrounding area as do tents of various sizes and construction. Modern nylon tents are nestled in beside the traditional felt and goat skin constructions of the nomadic Tuareg.

While you won’t find the micro brewery beer tents or the booths selling licensed memorabilia which dot the landscape at most modern music festivals, you can watch camel races and appreciate the splendour of the multi-coloured clothes worn by men and women alike. You might also be tempted to adopt the turban/veil assembly worn by so many of the Tuareg men in order to keep the worst of the sun’s heat off your head and gusting sand out of you mouth and nose. Away from the stage you may also take in performances in the various tribal encampments and listen to the ululating voices of women’s groups or endless guitar jams.

However, everybody comes to see the performers who are gracing the stage and this disc contains a sampling of 18 tracks culled from all the music played over the course of the weekend. It starts with a simple welcoming speech in French – a hangover from colonial days maybe, but still the common tongue among the different people attending and performing. Even in the welcoming speech you might notice the sound is a bit rough. The recording was taken directly from the soundboard and was limited to only two tracks. As a result there are times when the sound either distorts or is fuzzy as the equipment was simply not up to the task of containing the energy and enthusiasm of the performers.

While some might find the iffy quality of the sound hard to take or even be put off by it, consider the conditions under which the recording was made. The concert took place in the desert where electricity is limited, which in turns limits the amount of equipment you’re able to use. The priority would have been ensuring the crowd on hand was able to hear the music and the fact anyone even thought to hook up recording equipment to the two outputs available is amazing. Anyway, the sound may be rough. but it captures the feeling of being one of those lucky people crammed down near the front of the stage or sitting further back on a desert evening listening to the music.

You may never have heard of Baba Djire, Efes, or Orchestre du Takamba, the songs they perform or even understand what the songs are about. What you will understand while listening to this disc is what an amazing experience it is to be out in the middle of the Sahara Desert with the stars overhead and the sand around you listening to music. In this video trailer put out by the festival promoting the disc and the festival itself you’ll find background information that not only summarizes the history of the event but the situation in Mali earlier in the year which forced organizers to cancel this year’s event. Most of all, it will provide you with the images from the festival which will supply the fuel your imagination needs to picture yourself standing in front of the stage with people from all over the world listening to some incredible music.

Like the festival itself, Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is filled with the raw passion of music being performed by artists who are not only musicians by profession but by vocation as well. They don’t play out of any desire for celebrity or recognition, but because the music is their way of expressing who they are and what they believe in. You don’t have to understand the lyrics to appreciate the sound of pure unadulterated passion. While the sound quality may not be up to the standards you’re used to, the music is far superior to most of what you’ll hear at more so-called professional events. This is as close as you can get to being at Festival au Desert without actually travelling to the Sahara Desert.

Photo Credit – Festival Picture by Chis Nolan

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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 Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.