The Festival in the Desert has been held in the arid northern region of Mali annually since 2001. In January 2012, however, just after that year’s festival, a rebellion in the region began that has since spiralled into civil war, and the 2013 festival was called off. This disc, recorded at the 2012 festival in Timbuktu, is being promoted as a way of keeping the spirit of the festival alive.
Francophone Mali is geographically and culturally diverse, ranging from the sub-saharan savannah of the south through the central sahel into the Sahara in the north. The music of the festival and this disc reflect some of that diversity, though since it’s billed as a desert festival it leans most heavily on the music of the arid north. That music is typified by the guitar-heavy bluesy desert-rock sound, like that of Timbuktu singer Khaira Arby, who is backed by an all-electric band on her very rocking song “La Liberte.” Her powerful vocals are amazing and the music really rocks, with an excellent bass line, jazz-influenced drumming and a couple of nearly psychedelic guitar solos. Also in this vein are groups like Tartit, whose “Democratie” is a little subdued – I understand some of the band were unable to travel to the festival. Another Touareg ensemble, Imarhan, is more guitar-heavy yet on its song “Aichata,” which seems to feature men entirely. Samba Toure sings powerfully in front of his Touareg ensemble and male backing singers; in fact, he seems to overpower the PA system. And Baba Djire with his group would probably have fit right in at that other festival, Woodstock; very accessible, rootsy, bluesy stuff, and some impressive picking. The young guitarist from Gao, Mali, Oumar Konate, also plays a very accessible and guitar-heavy song with no little Hendrix influence, backed by a very high-voiced female singer. The final track is given to guitarist and singer Koudede, who died in an auto accident in October 2012.
The festival also brings together musicians from throughout West Africa, including Afropop legend Habib Koite, who (along with his ensemble) mesmerizes with the song “Wari.” What an amazing singer Koite is! The Ali Farka Toure Allstars featuring Mamadou Kelly do their namesake proud with “Adibar,” a bluesy number that also features some superb percussion (including balafon) and a funky bass line. Bassekou Koutaye, who plays the Malian lute the ngoni, holds the crowd spellbound with the song “Poye,” backed by bass and a jazz-influenced drummer.
Some of the more exotic fare indludes the traditional Malian group Tamnana, whose performance features chanting, clapping and ululating over mixed percussion; Mauritanian griot vocalist Noura Mint Seymali, who sings stridently over backing of a lute of some kind and raucous drumming; and Orchestre du Takamba, whose lead instrument sounds somewhat like a kora, backed by thumping and scratching percussion.
The most stirring among many such moments on this disc is the phenomenal rendition of “Mustt Mustt” by Canadian-Indian singer Kiran Ahluwalia. She is backed by world-renowned Touareg band Tinariwen on this highly emotional song from the repertoire of qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – two true world music masters carrying forth the legacy of another.
This disc is a suitable souvenir of the Festival in the Desert, but here’s hoping that the political situation in Mali is resolved so its people can live again in security, and the festival can resume its mission of opening the desert culture to the outside world.
(Clermont Music, 2013)