various artists,
Festival in the Desert
(World Village, 2003)

Festival in the Desert is an occasion to catch up with some old acquaintances from the African music scene. Held at Essakane, a locality in the Sahara near the fabled town of Timbuktu, this festival is -- for the time being -- the apotheosis of three such gatherings. Two earlier sessions took place at Kidal in 2001 and, a year later, in Tessalit.

For war-torn Mali, these festivals have become an indispensable element of national reconciliation. Because for the better part of the 1990s this poor African country was the stage of a civil war between the South, a land of sedentary farmers and semi-nomadic pastoralists that is ethnically part of sub-Saharan Africa, and the fiercely independent desert wanderers of the North. These Touareg, or Tel Tamashek as they prefer to be called, are closer to the cultural heritage of ancient Moorish North Africa.

With this album, scores of committed performers and other music professionals from the region, Europe and America have provided the listener with a unique artistic testimony. Organizing an event like Festival in the Desert must have been a logistics nightmare, but perseverance as much as inspiration helped overcome all imaginable odds. All of the album's tracks were recorded on site and together make for a magnificent collection of 20 widely varying compositions.

The majority of the artists hail from Mali, with additional contributions from neighboring Mauritania and expatriate African musicians from France. On top of that the listener is regaled by veterans like Robert Plant from the UK and the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, who both traveled to Essakane for the occasion. Justin Adams, a Briton committed to making Saharan music known to the outside world, has participated in the project as well.

Probably one of the "main events" of the three-day musical feast was the appearance made by Tinariwen. (See my review of Tinariwen's The Radio Tisdas Sessions.) This formation traded their semi-automatic weapons for electric guitars and developed a unique musical style called Tishoumaren -- meaning "music of the unemployed," in reference to the position of the disenfranchised Tamashek youth forced to waste their lives away as exiles or refugees. Their song "Aldacha Manin" is signature Tinariwen: wailing guitars and a sonorous interpretation of the lyrics, under the accompaniment of shrill female background vocals.

Another top act is Ali Farka Toure, one of the grand old men of the Mali Blues. The participation of Oumou Sangare, queen of the Malian song, symbolizes the healing of old rifts; a decade ago the presence of this southern diva amidst the northern tribesmen would have been considered impossible.

Many regard Adam Yalomba as the coming man of Mali music, and rightly so. His vocal style bears a resemblance to both that of fellow Malian and a giant of Mandingo music, Salif Keita, and the Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour. Equally impressive is the closing performance by Django, who also signed on for a duet with the ensemble Lo'Jo from France.

To my mind, the most unique contribution to this album is that by the Navajo group Blackfire, who felt strangely at home in the African desert setting and whose rock-style music drew an enthusiastic response from the desert nomads. However, at least as special is the rap performance (in French!) by Vincent "Kwal" Loiseau. For this particular event he teamed up with Foy Foy, a veteran member of the earlier mentioned formation Tinariwen.

With this CD album Festival in the Desert, Triban Union, in cooperation with numerous others, has recorded an event of international cultural significance. It can rightly be included in the annals of great music from Northwest Africa.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 15 November 2003

Buy it from