Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reportage from Festival in the Desert

Well, the Afropop team was busy writing a grant proposal, and had to miss the action at the 10th annual Festival in the Desert in Mali. But we will be presenting reports from the festival, which appears to have been a great success. Our colleague, Chris Nolan has checked in with this initial report--

Report on the 10th Edition of the Festival au Desert.
Chris Nolan

As the sun began to set in Timbuktu, the 10th edition of the Festival au Desert began with full evening of exceptional entertainment in front of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic audience broadcast live over ORTM, Mali's national public television channel. Welcoming remarks were given to the Festival goers by the Mayor of the City and his remarks were echoed by the governor of the region. The Minister of Culture, Hon. Mohamed el Mohctar, spoke on behalf of everyone when he summed up the meaning of the Festival: bonheur; paix et securite.


As a taste of things to come the opening ceremony was capped by short performances from Habib Koite, Africa Percussion, Super Khoumeissa Band, Beley J, followed by the incomparable Haira Arby: Then the ceremonies were adjorned for a short dinner break.


The city of Timbuktu, a short walk away from the new Festival site, saw crowds of people walking through its dusty streets each day. Opening the evening program on the main stage was 7 Etoiles de Dire followed by Groupe Folklorique Bellafarandi. Both groups were in the traditional desert style. Then Fantani Toure took the stage and riveted the crowd with her clear griot style singing. Her red outfit clearly matched the hot style of her group. A Bambara superstar, Fantani sang directly to the crowd and they responded.
Fantani was followed by a group from the South Pacific nation of New Caledonia, Dick and Hnatr, who sang of their own colonial experience with France. The next singer was the American Harper Simon who sang an acoustic set of contemporary US singer songwriter material.

Then the group Skullroots from Norway brought the crowd to its feet with their unique use of the jews harp and hand drum. Their simple yet emotionally varied music resonated through the audience. They was followed by Tiale Arby whose style of contemporary Malian singing brought the program back to Africa. This mix of cultures was a significant part of this years program.

The final group of the evening was the now world renown Tinariwen. Their set lasted for over an hour and was wildly cheered at each song. Repeating his trademark phrase ce n est pas un catastrophe, Abullah led the group through a strong set that was energized and at the same time relaxed by the desert venue. It is always a clear advantage to hear a band among its hometown fan base. This set closed the evening and the crowds drifted back to either the tents among the dunes or the hotels and houses of the City.

The second night began with Annane Sy followed by Groupe Folklorique Niafunke, traditional groups of the region. They were followed by Terakraft, a great Touareg band whose style is similar to Tinariwen but they make the desert blues entirely their own. They drew great response from the audience. Following them was Dady Dasty from Martinique whose reggae style was a a hit as he sang in French about the carribean experience.

The next performer, Rhissa Ag Wanagli from Niger, brought the more melodic touareg style of Niger to the audience. Deemed by many to be one of the superstars of Niger, Rhissa sang and played the guitar with a superb group. His music brought the audience back to the desert and the Touareg experience from across contemporary national borders.

The next group was the famous Tartit. Led by Disco, their singing was strong and they changed from the traditional to contemporary style during their set demonstrating the versatility and development of contemporary music. Unfortunately the sound system was not balanced for both style and that detracted from their considerable musicianship.

The next performer, Deacon from the American group Animal Collective, also had a sound problem during his set. His music featured electronics that were not well balanced by the sound crew but nevertheless he launched into the set fearlessly. This was new music to many and it was interesting to see the eagerness of the crowd to understand what he was doing and their appreciation of the effects and colorizations he achieved as a solo performer. No doubt we will be seeing this demonstration of electronica in future bands from Africa as they seek out the wonderful sounds and bending that Deacon was able to achieve.

Leni Stern also from New York followed Deacon. She was accompanied by Selif Keita s band with which she has been recording in Bamako. Her spirit shone through as she led the awsome band through her set.

The next performer was Bassekou Kouyate whose ngoni performance is masterful. Bassekou is a true band leader as he give space for the members of his group to shine during the set. His wife sings with the band and her voice rang out over the audience to the driving music of the band. Festival attendee, Marian Leth from Denmark, termed it swinging music as the upbeat grooves spilled out one after another from Bassekou's fingers.

The night was capped by a showcase for Ali Farka Toure led by the famous Afel Boucum and Ali Farka s band. Beginning with the masterful playing of Afel, one after another the superstars took the stage to sing Ali Farka s hits. Babah Salah; Baba Djire, Haira Arby, Vieux Farka Toure and Ali Baba Cisse brought the evening to a close at close to 5 in the morning. But everyone stayed to hear the performers play the songs of the master.
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