One of the Americans I saw the morning after the Festival said to me: "How come there were no headliners on the program?" What? No headliners? For African musicians there were plenty of headliners: Bassekou Kouyate (nominated for a Grammy award this year!); Oumou Sangare who draws huge international crowds; Tinariwen, the band that defines the desert blues style for America (although sadly they had family emergencies a few days before the opening that prevented their attending); Babah Salah, the guitar master just after Ali Farka Toure. And speaking of Ali Farka, his son Vieux Farka Toure is packing houses around the world. Not to mention Khaira Arby and Etran Finatawa. This was an African music festival with about 70% of the programming dedicated to music of the sahel and the desert. As for western artists, they have to be willing to make the trip at their own expense. That whole process takes at best 7 days overall. I spoke about this problem in the press conference with Manny Ansar, Executive Director of the Festival and he said:
"We have two problems with the programming of international artists. We ourselves do not have the means to pay for transportation or fees for international artist. Each artist must find its own support and find the money to arrive from either their governments or private sources. Due to the perceived security situation over the past 2 or 3 years, artists have found it almost impossible to get that funding. Either donors thought that the Festival would never happen at all or governments would not finance travel to this area. For example, Wimme from Finland, a nomadic Sami from the Arctic, wanted to come but could not because the Finnish government would not provide financing. Others, who did find the money, then had their foreign ministries decline permission. People in the West were afraid to come because they had no means to measure the acutal situation here. But some did come and we are very grateful.
As for programming national artists, we had some different problems but these were logistical and family matters. Because of the latter, Tinariwen could not come. Ibrahim has sadly lost his eldest son in an accident three days ago. And Abdullah's mother is in hospital gravely ill. Tinariwen called yesterday to express their deep regret at being unable to appear because it was Tinariwen and I, their manager at the time, who with Ali Farka Toure and others created the Festival au Desert 11 years ago. The second cancellation was a group from Mauritania (Sedoum Ould Eida). The airline they were scheduled to take, Mauritania Airways, ceased operations four days ago. They could not find alternatives in time to make the Festival concert dates."
From this brief exchange it is clear that the programming of the Festival au Desert is quite difficult. The Festival has invited many artist's who would be considered headliners in the West. But, there is no support available to pay fees or transportation reimbursement. And when one international superstar's agents were approached 2 years ago, their request was for a $1 million dollar fee plus the transportation and lodging of 60 people. There are similarly impossible conditions from other artists. And, when you tell them that they will be sleeping in tents and using "turkish" toilets that makes it more difficult.