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The tragedy and triumph of Africa's doomed Festival in the Sahara


A few days drive from the nearest town, in the blistering heart of the sunburnt Sahara, a bandstand appears like an apparition through the swirling mirage of rising heat. At first, even though you have travelled there with the explicit purpose of taking in a festival, the sight seems so surreal that you suppose you must be succumbing to some sort of heatstroke. Then the sounds swim towards you, and nothing seems more fitting than taming this wilderness with a drenching oasis of some of the most unique, original and expressive guitar music on the planet… and even Bono is there too. 

The Festival au Désert is not just some extremist mission for hardy travellers either. It is a celebration of the Tuareg way of life — a way of life that has birthed a brand-new sound and identity in the face of hardships at every turn. Organised by the region, performed at by local bands, and graced by an army of Saharans, it is more so the case that occasional foreign tourist, or musician like Damon Albarn or Robert Plant tag along for the Malian experience and not the other way round. And its highs and lows are a paradigm of the region itself, the tough times music has faced and the hope that it has provided. 

The music in question is often referred to as Saharan Blues, a term in which the word ‘blues’ is doing a lot of work. There is no place on Earth quite as becoming of the blues as the North African region of the Sahara. It is a stretch of land where the first adjective to come to mind is ravaged; ravaged by the scorching sun, increasing climate-driven desertification, colonialism, then post-colonial disorder, socio-economic divides, political unrest, and many more horrors that I will leave out for fear of only creating further despair. As always, where despair resides, the tonic of music follows, and the great cultural boon of life has certainly not deserted the people of the Sahara. 

Whilst the music produced today may well have roots that reach back to African folk traditions and as such pretty much the beginning of man, the crystalising moment for this latest fuzzy incarnation began in earnest in 1979 with the band Tinariwen. The band encapsulated the rictus sound captured when the wandering autonomous existence of the Tuareg people entered a new post-colonial urban age. 

The story of Tinariwen sadly serves as a tragic tableau for how the desert sound came to be. If there was ever any doubt about how unrest rules the roost for the world’s most hardy residents, then the tale of frontman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib should dispel it for good. Aged four, he witnessed his own father’s execution by Malian Military officials. Most of his days thereafter were spent in Algerian refugee camps. In these camps, he saw a western film in which a cowboy played the guitar and was so spellbound that he decided to craft one of his own using a water can, a stick, and some fishing wire. Somehow such a rudimentary start eventually produced Jimi Hendrix-like results. 

Hendrix, incidentally, is a fitting comparison not only stylistically but because it was Jimi along with Dire Straits that proved to be the prominent western influences that spread through the North African region, captivating an audience of would-be rock stars therein and spawning a generation of genuine psychedelic sultans of swing. These modern western influences are inexorably interwoven into traditional African folk rhythms, creating a unique sound, and now, bands like Niger’s Mdou Moctar have cast global influence.

The sound of Saharan Blues, however, is partly down to the aforementioned abiding influences on the region, but also the soul of its people. The Tuareg people have existed for centuries, bound not by borders but a shared nomadic culture and the language of Tamasheq. However, as colonialism collapsed, and independence became widespread in the region in the ‘60s, the traditional Tuareg territory was fractured, spreading the people over 5 national boundaries, and with division came conflict and increasing marginalisation.

The multifaceted threats to a traditional existence have now become so perfuse that for many it is an untenable way of life. Hoards of youngsters, therefore, chose an alternative path, seeking refuge and hope in the figurative promised lands of the north, beyond the failing desert. Many of those young Tuareg wayfarers find themselves in the urban areas of Libya and Algeria in a state of alienation and destitution. This earned them the nickname ‘Ishumar’ which translates as something like a derogatory term for ‘unemployed’. Many more are likely to follow in their footsteps as the region’s climate, hostile but stable for thousands of years, suddenly begins to change, creating a growing number of climate refugees. One billion people are likely to suffer from this fate, and, with them, thousands of years’ worth of discreet culture. 

The young Tuareg people of North Africa repurposed the derogatory ‘Ishumar’ tag applied to them and, in fact, embraced this bestowment, using it to form the most recent narrative in their cultures changing landscape. Their music blossomed from this label—and this musical blossoming shows that although cultures may be forced to transition, the tragedy can still be transfigured into something beautiful that empowers an identity that could otherwise be lost. It was with this in mind The Festival in Desert was set up.

In November 2000, Tinariwen travelled to France where they met an avant-garde band by the name of Lo’Jo. Tales of their desert culture began to fascinate their French counterparts and, eventually, they became determined to visit. By January 2001, Lo’Jo were out in the desert and together with the locals, they set up a rudimentary stage. A few songs were played under the chandelier of the Saharan stars for a clutch of music-loving locals. From there, the idea was born to grow this all-giving beast into something bigger. Only two years later, in 2003, it would attract one of the most revered frontmen of all time as Robert Plant took to the stage. 

Legendary artists in the area set to unite the region in peace with a festival at the heart of it. The camels carting travellers from various ethnic groups that arrive after sometimes week-long travels is proof that this beautiful vision was a reality. No matter how brief that may have been, it is undoubtedly a triumph worth celebrating. For eleven years, the Festival in the Desert was a symbol of the hope that music had brought to the region.

However, that exultant triumph was always fuelled by despair and in 2012, it would sadly no longer be about overcoming it, but by being overwhelmed by it. Al Qaeda and other extremist groups began to infiltrate the Malian region. It became a no-travel zone for foreign tourists whose money was vital to sustaining the festival, and in mid-2012 the region had fallen to an extremist regime. Sharia law was implemented, and music became a crime punishable by death. Even Tinariwen’s guitarist was captured and held captive for ten days before managing to escape and flee Mali. 

The positive twist to this seemingly damning ending is that many of those who had enjoyed the bounty of the festival in the past, were ready to give back to those suffering. Glastonbury hosted a record number of Malian acts, Damon Albarn and Brian Eno travelled to regions where exiled musicians were recording and, in the process, helped to provide a platform for the mighty Songhoy Blues. And now, Saharan Blues is bigger than ever. 

In fact, the all-female band Les Filles de Illighadad, fronted by the Tuareg’s first female guitarist, Fatou Seidi Ghali, recently wandered into Washington D.C., with instruments tucked under their arms to perform at the US Library of Congress. The Festival might be no longer, but its reinvigorated mobilisation of an entire culture is definitely still with us. When Ghali addressed the Library of Congress she described the incorporation of the traditional female tende drum with guitar sounds as a way of, “asserting the power of women to innovate using the roots of traditional music.” Iggy Pop even featured on the song ‘Sahara’ by Songhoy Blues singing, “it’s a genuine culture, no Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Proving that from incredibly humble beginnings music always has the potential to defy the odds. 

The official website for the festival might now read, “The festival in the desert is currently in exile due to the unrest in Mali. Many of the Malian artists that have performed at the festival will be a part of this global experience so keep an eye out for Mali bands coming throughout the globe,” but you wouldn’t but it passed their globetrotting ways to return to a more peaceful home soon, and bring unity to the region once more. After all, Sharan blues is the soaring sound of a people bloodied but unbowed. Within the ever-expansive desert of hardships, the human sanctity that desert blues offers is a minuscular but mighty oasis of hope, comfort and bliss, inviolable to all that may come and that shimmering mirage of music in the desert is a paragon of that.  

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