Bucket List Music Festival: Mali's Festival au Desert
Hidden away on clandestine stretch of sand in the Sahara, miles from the closest city Timbuktu, is a music festival that is, according to their website, “still in exile.” Mali’s Festival au Desért is considered the most remote music festival in the world, but has been on hold since 2012, after separatist rebels and Islamic extremists have forced a stronghold on the region.
"This part of West Africa is the cradle of music and Mali in particular which became the blues and rock & roll - its like the big bang of all the music we love. And now in that same town it is against the law to make music.” - The Last Song Before the War
It's definitely the music I've always loved. The first thing I ever learned on the guitar was the blues pentatonic scale- it's just what you do when you get a guitar. There is something ever-so pervasive about the blues, so simple yet so profound, embedded into our American consciousness and culture. And to think that a group of shrouded desert nomads tapped into this from the the beginning, well.. life continues to amaze me.
Festival au Desert originated centuries ago as a camel-racing and sword-fighting event amongst the nomadic Tuaregs. After Mali’s independence in 1960 they vowed to protect their marginalized livelihood and have since evolved the festival into a gathering of music and reconciliation. The combination of politics and music is not unheard of in our histories, but in Mali's case, it's a matter of life and death.
Graced by West Africa’s most prestigious artists- the late, great Ali Farka Touré, Amadou & Mariam, Toumani Diabaté, Oumou Sangaré and a personal favorite, Tinariwen, to name a few- the festival also attracted Western artists like Robert Plant and Manu Chau, drawn there for probably much of the same reason I am. The hypnotic brand of desert blues speaks to a hauntingly familiar place in your soul.
"Ali Farka Toure’s Music was the DNA of the blues.” - Martin Scorsese
For hundreds of years, Timbuktu was one of the world’s most important centers of Islamic learning. Today it's a venerable nightmare with Islamic extremists imposing brutal Sharia law on its people. It is sad that the music of Mali is being held for ransom in the middle of this cultural war between modernity and the past.
It's the irony, how terror seems to coexist with such beauty, but there is hope. The festival has been shifting gears and relocating, calling itself a traveling “caravan of peace” and setting up smaller festivals across Morocco.
Until it is safe to travel there again, we have to wait for a new dawn of Mali. But we know that its music will carry on. Have you traveled to Mali or seen Festival au Desert?