Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 Festival in the Desert

Chris Nolan’s previous report on the 2012 Festival au Desert was a summary of highlights. But there was much more going on. Below is an update from Chris, send from Nouakchott, Mauritania. Also be sure to check out Nolan's footage from this year and festivals past. Also, the amazing festival photos taking by Alfred Weldinger this year. Here is Chris' report:

The Festival au Desert had in its original mission statement a focus on “reconciliation” after the Malian civil war of the 1990's. When the Flame de la Paix [Flame of Peace] monument was constructed in the late 90's in Timbuktu, the hope was that development would come to the area. The first three editions of the Festival occured in different locations reflecting the nomadic Tuareg. Logistics played a part in its fixing a location at Essakane about 65 km outside of Timbuktu in 2003-2004. The Festival continued for the following 7 years in the Essakane location until, in 2010, regional security concerns forced its relocation closer to the city of Timbuktu itself. Though still in the desert, it was now more secure and convenient, though some think the Festival lost a bit of its atmosphere. Nonetheless, this event continued to bring commerce and culture to the region.

During this same period, geopolitical forces have evolved to bring the entire western Sahara to a precarious moment. Drug mafias, complicit corruption, criminal motivations, fundamentalism and proponents of Saharan independence have all found refuge in this expansive and largely unsupervised region.

The desert is not empty. It is not a vast moonscape void of people. For millennia there have been vibrant cultures in the Sahara. Unique adaptive strategies have allowed people to create and thrive in these seemingly harsh conditions. However, with the arrival of neo-colonial powers, with foreign natural resource exploiting internationals, mafia-like smuggling networks, "modernization," and political corruption, those cultures are stressed to the limit and many see little hope for a peaceful resolution.

Andy Morgan correctly summarized the situation in the north of Mali in The National on 20 January 2012: "Today, that homeland is arguably in greater danger of total conflagration and anarchy than at any other time for a century. Until a few years ago the Touareg struggle for self-rule against the central governments of Mali and Niger, in which founder members Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and Alhassane Ag Touhami played an active part in the 1980s and early 1990s, was the only real conflict to blight the peace of the area. It was open and hospitable to outsiders. Now it's in lockdown. The fundamentalist Salafist terrorism of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the brutal trafficking of people and drugs across the Sahara, the rampant exploitation of mineral resources, the corruption of local governments and leaders, the heavy-handed intervention of foreign armies and security services, especially those of France and the US, and the huge inflow of small and medium-sized weaponry following the demise of Qaddafi in Libya, are turning this once remote, peaceful wilderness into a "globalised hellhole."

Mohamed Ag Aballow
The near final blow to the Festival au Desert came when in the late fall of 2011, there were two incidents of kidnapping in Mali, one in Timbuktu itself, where one person was killed. This brought the security alert to high status, and all Western governments issued formal bans on the area and the Festival itself. In this context, it is important to note that the Festival au Desert 2012 went off with absolutely no incident. It was a peaceful celebration of the desert and its culture. All of the people involved with its organization feel that it was one of the best editions ever.

The Festival in the Desert is an occasion where culture is directly related to its socio-political context. The music speaks to this context. This is the griot tradition. This is the tradition of the bard. And these poet/historian/chroniclers are playing their time-honored role at a difficult moment. The subtleties may be lost on an audience unfamiliar with the situation, the language or the roots of the music, but many are nevertheless drawn to the artistry, sound and rhythm of this ongoing and essential process.

There area always important conferences held during the mornings of the Festival. This year's edition featured two important ones. One was related to the environment. After a presentation of scientific research documenting the rising temperatures and increasing wind speeds recorded in Timbuktu, the discussion moved to what global warming means locally. It is not an optimistic picture. Sand engulfs towns and waterways. The shallower the waterways the more dried they become. These circumstances are the result of many forces, some within, but most outside the desert's control.
Two Tuareg women, Nouch-Nouch and Hatu
The second conference was even more interesting. It concerned the current security situation in the north of Mali. It began in French with translation into English. The Tamashek in the audience immediately objected. It was a conference directly concerning their current security and relationship to the central government. The primary language was changed to Tamashek and the discussion quickly became more heated. The translation was abandoned because the conversation was too fast to take the time to translate. Many of the westerners drifted away because they did not understand what was being said. The conference lasted for four hours. It was clear that this is a situation that does not have an easy communication channel between the regions of the country and the central government. Equally obvious was that any resolution to the problems is far from decided.

Tinariwen was involved in the first Festival and has appeared at almost every subsequent edition. They become the inspiration for a generation of musicians and have many imitators across the region. From Morocco to Algeria to Niger and across northern Mali you can hear cover versions of their songs. These guys are not new to this scene; they've been at it since the 80's.

It was appropriate that the sound techs played "Bloody Sunday" during a short pause as Bono came to the stage on Friday evening of this year’s Festaival. U2 also began their career during a troubled violent era in Ireland. But this connection was lost on the primarily young audience who were more impressed by the Tinariwen legend and did not know much about the white rocker who joined them onstage. Bono's improvised "Vive le Mali, Vive la paix, Vive la musique," did not have as much force for them as when Tinariwen sang "Imidiwan" or "Tenere."

Saluting the Prime Minister
But Bono's appearance did deliver an important signal to the West that this was an important place to be. He had come to Timbuktu with his One World Foundation. He received the gracious hospitality of the people of Timbuktu and Mali. And the world saw a superstar brave the West's dire warnings and lend his support to the Festival's goals. He also gave an important statement to the press appearing on Malian national television during its reporting of the event.

The Festival's program included African musicians who are little known in the West and some world famous. Amira Kheir from Sudan brought music from further east in the Sahara. She was very warmly received and her vocal style was smooth and jazz like. Samba Toure has an amazing voice and stage presence. He performed among the stars assembled for a great tribute to Ali Farka Toure along with the incredible guitarist Mahoudou Kelly, bassist Barou Dialo, Vieux Farka Toure and ngoni superstar Bassekou Kouyate. This tribute featured some of the songs made famous by Ali Farka. Everybody knew them and it was a genial and relaxed jam session among friends.

Baba Djire
Koudede, from Niger
The Tuareg group Amanar who have begun to appear in Europe put on a strong set. The introduction of electric keyboards into their instrumentation is not always successful. But the group's strong performance made up for it. Another Tuareg group, Terakaft had cancelled their appearance. They also had to cut their tour of the US scheduled for March. The cost and red tape to travel is extreme. Tadalat, another young group from Kidal, gave a strong set of the new generation of Tuareg musicians. They had also appeared at the Festival Taragalte in M'Hamid Morocco in November (my report on this festival will soon be published on the Afropop Blog) and brought all the young guys to their feet. Baba Djire, another young talent at the Festival, has been playing around the region and will continue to become better known as his music is an infectious mix.

The infectious good vibe Mamar Kassey from Niger delivered spiked an energetic opening night. This is the party music of Niamey these days, a cultural scene that is full of energy and endurance. Then, Koudede took the stage and pushed the party into high gear. He played a long set with his compatriots from Niger, Bibi and Gourmou. They were a solid groove that everyone was dancing to. A great band who brought the mosh pit to the festival. Then two nights later, Koudede accompanied another fantastic band from Niger, Atri N'Assouf led by the fantastic vocalist and guitarist, Rhissa Ag Wanagli. Another guy from Niger joined into the mix, Hasso. These guys from Niger had a strong, proud sound and a perfect command of the stage. Veterans of the music scene, they know how to get the music over. Singing with Nigerien accents, they brought their neighbors in Mali closer together through their music. On the first evening they kept the party going as everyone drifted off to their tents or back to the city to sleep in the chilly desert night. On the third night, they were a perfect ramping up of the energy to closers Habib Koite and Tinariwen.

Koudede with Bibi and Gourmou
A super "battle of the bands" was held with three Takamba groups. This style is traditionally based, and one of the foundations of Tuareg music. It is characterized by the fingerpicking style of the three-stringed tehardent lute, also known by its Bambara name ngoni. Takamba is dance music. The style has local variations but shares a syncopated beat structure and repetitive figures while a vocalist sings various legends, praises and announcements. The groups represented the regions of both Gao and Timbuktu, traditional rivals in the takamba style. There have been recent releases of this music in the West (notably a great CD by, and named, Super Onze in 2010), but it has yet to be as well known as it ought to be. This "battle of the takamba bands" happened on the main stage. There was also another "traditional" side stage every afternoon that featured the best known traditional musicians in the region. Igbayen is a traditional style of dance that features a musical chant. Each village has its best group and two appeared at the Festival this year, Igbayen Tin Dika and Igbayen Arakchene.

There is a huge amount of music played in Mali. Varied, vibrant and challenging, it is all fantastic. But it remains a curio to most Americans, foreign and unheard by most for a lot of reasons. One is that people do not come to Africa out of fear or the difficulty of traveling there. It isn't really that difficult. And the music is best heard in its environment. When it is played in an American concert hall, it is abstracted to the point of becoming precious. It needs the dust and smells of Africa to make sense, to feel its life, its energy.

Mohamed Issa of Tartit and Imharhan
Two nights in a row on a side stage the documentary film, "Woodstock in Timbuktu" was screened. Many people watched this film during the weekend. The Festival has brought films before to the site. In 2008 the Inuit film, "Atanajurat" was screened to further share the culture of the Inuit troupe who performed that year. As a prelude, the year 2013 is hope to be a Nordic special featuring Sami artists from Norway, Finland and an Inuit singer from Greenland. These nomadic groups will all meet in the desert in a cultural exchange highlighting the nomadic world and the dramatic effects of global warming at its two extremes on the planet, the desert and the arctic.

On the final afternoon, the Prime Minister joined the Festival audience and was feted by special performances by Khaira Arby and others. The Prime Minister thanked all the people who had come this year and she invited members from each country to join her on the stage for a "family photo." She then sat in the stands to watch the show. This was broadcast live on Malian state television (ORTM), which is available worldwide to subscribers. Many people reported that they watched this show.

As the Festival ended, the gathered crowd, still sleepy from the after 3 AM conclusion of the final show, and scrambling to leave and make their flights home or the ferry across the Niger River. The Festival organization relaxed. This was a day to breath. What happened the following day was more serious. The MNLA [National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad] struck in the town of Menaka, east of the city of Gao. The next day they struck in the northern town of Tessalit, hometown of members of Tinariwen, and then the town of Aguelhoc. The Malian army responded, and the fight is ongoing as this report is written. Will the Festival happen again next year? Once again, the Festival organizers say, “Yes, it must occur.” And given the history, we have no reason to doubt their word.

Festival director Manny Ansar

Samba Toure and Khaira Arby
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