The Festival au Desert takes place in Essakane, Mali each year. It showcases traditional Tuareg music as well as music from around the world. In January 2008, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Mali and be a part of this amazing and surreal festival. You may be asking why I found it ‘surreal’. Close your eyes and try to imagine…
There is a stage. The stage is surrounded by sand and rolling dunes and nothing else. The stage is isolated in the middle of the desert. Men on camels wander in front of the stage. In fact, they are roaming freely around the festival site. The men are wearing bright blue cotton robes and dark turbans to protect themselves from the burning sun. Ladies wander on foot through the hot sand. They sit in front of the stage and do not move for hours. There is no dancing. It is very civilised. The sun sets and then the festival comes to life. After midnight, some of Mali’s most renowned performers play their set. There are still hundreds of people sitting down, with a ring of people dancing behind them. At 3am the show finishes and everyone goes to the ‘disco’. There is a disco amongst the sand dunes, a DJ playing dance music and everyone is having a great time. As I said, I found it very surreal.
There were numerous local Tuareg groups who performed. Tinariwen,a Tuareg band that has now become world famous, played very late one night. Vieux Farka Toure, the son of the late Ali Farka Toure played and I thought he was brilliant. According to our guide, he has inherited his dad’s immense talent. There were other famous West African acts that thrilled the crowd with their performances. It is a shame that you had to wait all night to hear the best acts. However it did mean that we were up until dawn, enjoying the late night parties. And it did not matter if we slept the morning away because we did not miss anything!
Throughout the afternoons, they would showcase the international guests. Oddly enough for me it was the international guests that let the festival down slightly. A few years ago Robert Plant played and I think everyone was hoping he would make another appearance. Me, I was wishing for Sting or U2!
Still, it was interesting to watch how the gathered locals reacted to these interesting performances. Some sat very still and there was very little reaction. Some just walked away. I laughed to myself and waited patiently for the next act!!
I was there for three days. In those few days, I heard some incredible music, and also saw some very bizarre performances. Cirque de Soleil it certainly was not!
Whilst sitting on a sand dune in the early evening, it really struck me how remote the Festival au Desert really is. It certainly is not Glastonbury. There is no mud for a start! We got the chance to go on a camel ride up and down the dunes surrounding the festival. That was really cool. Sand went everywhere as we raced down the dunes. The camel drivers watched in bemusement and were ready to take us back to our tent after our few minutes of silliness!
Overall, I enjoyed the music. I had fun dancing in the sand. I enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere and drinking warm beer. I loved the market that had been set up and although I was thoroughly ripped off, I do have some gorgeous Tuareg silver jewellery and artifacts as mementos of my time in the desert.
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