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The Sahara: Festival in the Desert & Tinariwen

AAJ Staff By

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Festival in the Desert
A Film by Lionel Brouet
World Village

For three days in early January of 2003, camels and 4x4s converged upon an oasis in Essakane, Mali. They brought with them a curious collection of Tuareg nomads and local musicians, even groups from Europe and North America. The purpose: a dramatic festival celebrating music, culture, and reconciliation. Big-name Malian stars, including vocalist Oumou Sangaré and guitarist Ali Farka Touré, shared a common stage with lesser-known Tuareg groups like Tinariwen and Tartit.

This Festival in the Desert DVD makes an excellent companion to last year's ecstatic CD sampler of the event (reviewed here ). It includes performance footage of several groups, as well as the story of how the festival came to exist. There's something about watching all those camels come in—and seeing congregations of people make spontaneous music outside their tents—that brings it all to glowing life. Not to mention interviews with musicians and coordinators alike, who all stress the importance of sharing geographical and musical space in harmony.

The nomadic Tuaregs who live in the Sahara Desert in northern Mali may call this region home, but only after years of armed conflict and dispossession could they return for a proper celebration. Their time-tested way of life often stands in direct conflict with modern standards of property and possession. The fact that Tuaregs could get together at Essakane for this summit meeting, in the context of such rich and diverse music, is a tribute to ongoing efforts by the Malian government and others to put differences aside and coexist in peace.

The music gets going right away with a vocal performance by Awza, a group of high-flying singers from Timbuktu, who inspire a combination of curious gazes and swaying dance from the audience. The Tuareg women's group Tartit, formed in the refugee camps of Mauritania, offers the combination of trance-like rhythms and call-and-response vocals that characterize their own neo- traditional style. (Check out their recent recording, Ichichila , for more.)

The first of several cross-cultural collaborations comes with Oumou Sangaré's high-octane performance of "Wayena," where she invites Ali Farka Touré on stage to dance. He most definitely has a personal style, better seen than described, and a sense of humor—slyly dropping bills over Sangaré's shoulder as she sings. "It's about love," he says in an interview later. When she sings in his language (Songhai), she reaches out and he responds in kind.

After performances by the French/Malian group Lo'Jo and Malian rockers Tinariwen (see below ), Robert Plant takes the stage with guitarist Justin Adams. Plant understandably looks ancient beyond his years; however, he's in touch with the spirit of the music, digging deep into its soul without pretension. But don't waste your time listening to him talk, because quite honestly he really doesn't have much to say.

Next up: a very loud "Common Enemy" by Navajo punk rockers Blackfire. They're a little rough around the edges, but they're most definitely aware of how it feels to be marginalized. Django and Ali Farka Touré each follow with a song of their own. Touré comes loaded with hype as the biggest local star at the festival; he delivers on the spot with an upbeat, swirling, almost psychedelic performance.

It's hard to overstate the musical, cultural, and spiritual impact of the people and the music in this documentary. Filmmaker Lionel Brouet achieved just the right balance of performance, talk, and scenery. The show ends all too soon at 52 minutes, but the images, ideas, and sounds will linger long afterwards in your head.

World Village

In light of economic and political changes in the Sahara, the nomadic Tuareg people who have criss-crossed the desert for a seeming eternity have found their "epic golden age" coming to an end. Recent conflicts with land owners and governments may have subsided, but the Tuareg way of life is facing major changes. The old ways must change for these people to coexist with their neighbors, and this comes as painful news to those who value the traditions which must be left behind.

Some of these themes came to the eyes and ears of the world via the recent CD and DVD documentation of the 2003 Festival in the Desert, which brought Tuaregs together with musicians from the south of Mali (as well as Europe and North America). This musical summit of sorts in northern Mali prominently featured the Tuareg group known as Tinariwen, whose name translates in the Tamashek language to "deserts."


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