Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2012 Festival in the Desert: full report

Over the weekend, we posted a couple of partial reports from Chris Nolan, our man at the Festival in the Desert.  Now that he's back in reach of a better internet connection, we have his full report.  Chris does not mention this, but the headline might be that, once again, the festival went off with no crime or violence.  Despite other things that may be happening in this region, this festival's safety record remains exemplary.  We will have more on this year's festival--video, photos, another report.  So stay tuned.  Here's Chris's full report:


12 January 2012, Timbuktu, Mali

Not many tourists are in these streets. But those who are here and attending this years Festival au Desert edition 2012 will be treated to a great lineup. Tinariwen, Bassekou Koyate, Habib Koite, Noura Mint Seymali, Vieux Farka Toure, Tartit, Samba Toure, Khaira Arby, Oumar Konate, Mamoudou Kelly, Atri n'Assouf, Mamar Kassey, Koudede, Amanar, Abdoulaye Diabate, Igbayen, and many more. Over 30 groups made up this three day event's program. And on opening night a special guest was announced: Bono from U2.

The program began with short sets by local groups who are just cutting their teeth on the music scene. But some future stars were evident. One such artist to watch for was Kia whose strong voice has been assisted by the advice of Khaira Arby (the reigning queen of song in Timbuktu).

Khaira Arby, Vieux Farka Toure, Omar Konate, Timbuktu airport
Another star about to be launched on the international stage is Omar Konate. This young guitarist hails from Niafunke, the home of Ali Farke Toure. He has been trained in that style and also has mastered the electric guitar of rock. His voice is strong and his presence electric. This is a guy to watch for.


Omar Konate
About 6000 people are here for the Festival 2012 including 350 non-Africans from as far away as New Zealand who have braved the warnings and come to support this cultural peace project. The officials report that there are foreigners from 60 countries. Bono himself arrived Thursday the 12th with about 20 from his One World foundation who are on a research tour in western Africa.

As the main program began Thursday night, the crowd was electric with anticipation. Abdoulaye Diabate got everyone going with his infectious good humored set. A master vocalist, Abdoulaye was backed by his hot band, which kept the groove up nonstop. He dedicated a song to festival director Manny Ansar and in the crowd Bono was dancing up a storm with the people who were around him. Even the Minister of Culture, Hamane Niang, got up to dance.

Bono with his wife and Minister Niang

With government ministers present there was a lot of security. The Prime Minister was due to arrive on Sunday for the final day of the Festival. This didn't seem to dampen the festivalier's spirit. Unfortunately, I imagine that the reduced number of tourists overall this year has severely dampened the artisans market volume. This event is one of the only major influxes into the area. Several people remarked that once the Festival ended, Timbuktu would be left with nothing giong on given the current freeze of activity. This is unfortunate as it leaves a void that someone will fill. But as of now, most people agree that Tombouctiens are surprisingly open and ready to engage their visitors in multiple languages. One is greeted in English, German, and Spanish as the polyglot locals have self-taught language mastery in support of their tourism industry.

One of the exciting aspects of the Festival is the number of Tent Session [the subject of Afropop’s 2004 film on the Festival in the Desert] where artists jam and collaborate. I met a young friend, Mohamed Ag Aballow, who showed me how he is mastering the lute called tehardent, the instrument his father Aballow Yatarra plays. The young crowd are proud of their cultural heritage and work to preserve it while also embracing modernism. Mohamed has his cell phone, facebook page and email address as ready as any young guy in the West.

Mohamed Ag Aballow
Noura Mint Seymali at the Timbuktu Airport

The absolutely spellbinding vocalist Noura Mint Seymali from Mauretania is ready to claim the role of her famous stepmother the late Dimi Mint Abba. Noura comes from the great griot tradition of the family of Seymali Ould Mouhamed Val and began her career as a backup vocalist to here stepmother Dimi. She has the depth of training in the classical traditions of Mauritanian song craft to be compelling in the vocal pyrotechnics of this poetic and devotional song style. Incredible to hear once more in Timbuktu as Noura had graced the stage in 2007 at Festival au Desert. She has also bridged the classical and the modern in her music as she transitioned to a more electric band configuration. With her strong charisma and appeal to the audience she will become a major star. What I hope for is that the West will finally open its ears and hearts to the beauty, subtlety and craft of this Islamic music. Noura is incredible!

The seasoned Tuareg roots music group Tartit put on an amazing set, as they always do. Their traditional style includes tehardent, the traditional violin called imzhad, Tinde drum, hand drum, augmented by electric guitar. Their vocals alternated between the forgeron (blacksmith) griot and the women. Tartit encountered some technical sound problems, which, as Disco, the group's leader, pointed out from the stage, are a normal aspect of switching to electric instruments from traditional ones. That initial delay put their set out of Festival's stage schedule and threw off the group's change of style to contemporary. They call that configuration, Imharhan. They were only able to play two songs but after some negotiation were able to come back to say that the would finish their set at the end of the evening's program and continue on as long as the audience wanted. Imharhan are a very popular local band who play alot in the area and have many devoted fans of their desert blues inpsired rock groove.

Mohamed Issa leader of Imharhan
Habib Koite

Malian troubadour and Afropop stalwart Habib Koite played a stellar set on the last night. He too had some sound tech issues, but it turned out to be just a bad guitar cable. Habib kept right on going, a real pro, unfazed by a minor hassle while his sound guy scrambled to find the source. Habib's personal charisma and connection to the audience created a strong bond immediately. His performance was one of the best I have seen him give. The band kept fully in high gear as they drove through his strong set.

Many Ansar at the controls!
Kiran Ahluwalia
The final programmed band was the finale by Tinariwen. Their full set included a collaboration with a singer from India, via Canada, Kiran Ahluwalia. She sang the Indo-Pakistani Sufi song "Must Must" made famous by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the crowd was totally into it. Her vocal subtlety and strength were fantastic. As most songs in the classical Islamic tradition, this was a devotional piece, a fitting ending for a peaceful, spiritually charged gathering. Starting with a meditative statement of the raga, the song progressed as the band joined in with their guitars and then familiar Tuareg rhythms. An immediate cultural resonance was felt by everyone and they showed their enthusiasm and appreciation with loud cheers and dancing.

Tartit soundcheck

"Disco" of Tartit
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