Words & Images by Josh Miller
Editor's Note: This January, Josh Miller journeyed to an extraordinary musical celebration set in the remote reaches of Western Africa, Mali's "Festival Au Desert." He was there to photograph the festival that is held in the desert oasis Essakane, 65 kilometers from Timbuktu, and draws musicians from Mali, Guinea, Niger, and several other countries. It was also a trip "home" for Josh, who lived in Mali for two years while in the Peace Corps from 1999 - 2001. The following narrative and photographs are his account of the journey to the Festival.
I was headed for Essakane, Mali, and the Festival in the Desert. After a two-day flight that started in San Francisco and plenty of down-time in the airports, I was finally entering Bamako, Mali – the capital and hub for festival attendees. For most of us, arriving in this extremely foreign land is a surreal experience, but this wasn't the first time for me. Still, the strange sensation of stepping into the hot, dusty, polluted air, covering the aged tarmac of Bamako Airport's runway and into a one-room Baggage Claim/Passport Inspection facility quickly turned into an intense longing to exit and head to a remote music festival located on the southern fringes of the largest desert in the world - the Sahara.
My Peace Corps teammate's husband, Solo Togo, picked me up at the airport, and we were off for their house in the neighborhood of North Korofina. I always love looking out the car window upon entering various large cities around the world. I have been lucky enough to experience a handful in my short time on this planet, and they always treat me to a sweet handful of eye candy. On this occasion, I was brought back to a place that inevitably pulls at the finest of heartstrings I have inside.
Bamako is a sprawling city of mud-brick buildings located in the central/western part of Mali, a landlocked country in the heart of West Africa that is two times the size of Texas and on any given day, dustier and hotter than the summer wind-swept geology of New Mexico. The smells that emanate from every corner are unknown to our Western noses – the scent of open wood fires used for cooking co-mingles with open sewage systems and heaping mounds of trash. It's a unique smell.
Africa in general displays a community feel unlike America. Everyone hangs outside. Mali is no different. The people don't spend their time inside unless they are sleeping. Days are spent on the streets of the city selling goods like coconuts, mangoes, bananas, dust masks that look like they came off an Air France flight, sunglasses, pirated CDs, milk in tied plastic baggies, neem tree toothbrushes – the list goes on and on...
I crashed out for roughly four hours at my friend's house only to find myself packing at 5 a.m. to catch a bus headed north to a fishing town on the continent's third-largest river, The Niger. Severe/Mopti (two towns that have merged) was my destination, but before I was to arrive, I quickly remembered where I was and was reminded that after five years not much had changed in terms of transport – schedules are lax, to say the least. As 100 people were returning home from their annual holiday of Tabaski, we waited for three hours before the ticket seller came to work that day. He must have had a nice holiday and was in no rush to sell bus tickets.
The bus stopped in all the major towns along the river. I met a few friends on the bus who were also headed to the festival, and we spoke in Bambara – one of the most widely used languages in Mali. I needed this bus ride for language purposes alone. It is great to be living day-to-day with the language. It helps sharpen my mind and continues to challenge me.
Children in Mali
One night in Mopti was essential for regaining some of my lost energy. At this point I had been traveling for three days straight with little sleep, and it would be another two days before I reached the sand dunes and one lone stage in the desert where music magic was sure to happen.
We jumped (nine of us) into a white 4x4 the next morning for a trip that would prove arduous and draining, yet adventurous and entertaining at the same time. The first obstacle to overcome was the fact that there was no radio in the car, but luckily we were packing two guitars, a mandolin, and two harmonicas in the keys of A and G. We went through a multitude of songs for an hour and a half while on a nicely paved road, headed in the direction of the Hand of Fatima, a magnificent and highly-regarded rock climbing formation that lures some of the most adventurous climbing aficionados from around the world. But the singing and strumming quickly came to a stop when our paved road turned washboard, and for the next four hours, the ride was nothing but stomach-turning and mind-melting in all the wrong ways.
(L) Kerry Andras (R) Kurt Beckering of The Rusty Strings
We stopped several times to collect our balance and to change places in the confined vehicle, but eventually we reached the enchanting city of Timbuktu, a sandy town just nine kilometers from the great Niger River.
Timbuktu is home to the "Blue People" of the Sahara - the guardians of the desert - the Tuareg, or Tamashek people, as they call themselves. A proud people who still ride into the city on their camels, dressed in their indigo-dyed clothes (the dye rubs onto their skin giving them the blue skin they are named for) and brandishing the swords you might see in a Sinbad movie. The Tamashek have traditionally traded salt throughout the vast expanses of the Sahara; however, as the southern Malian-run government has pushed the Tamashek to settle and end their nomadic ways, many have turned to selling silver jewelry and swords to tourists. There are those who still trade salt and drink tea in the Sahara, but Timbuktu is not the place it used to be.
We stayed at Poulet d'Or for an evening, once again pulling out the guitars and singing into the night with new Malian friends and musicians who taught us Ali Farka Toure (legendary Mali bluesman) riffs in 6/8 time. The rhythms were difficult to get used to but soon became comfortable in the setting of the moon and stars. We slept on the roof that night. In the morning, we were all definitely feeling the pain of Castel Beer on the brain and a hard, mud-roof-induced lower back pain.
The ride to Essakane – the oasis where the Festival would take place – was like nothing I'd ever been on. I relate it to something I have watched on TV, like a dune buggy race or something of the like. Our crew had to push our vehicle on four different occasions. The ride was as bumpy as it gets, and before long, the folks in front of us who had at least twenty people in the back of a Toyota pickup stopped to let a girl out to puke. Bless her heart. She made it through, and we were on our way - bit by bit, little by little.
We began with just 60 kilometers (37.3 miles) to travel, but it took nearly three hours to reach the front gate, which was a 40-foot wide cement wall with one gate the size of a vehicle. I wondered how easy it would be to drive around it and who on earth decided to build it.
By the time we reached the encampment, I was all but a shriveled, dehydrated mess. It had been five days of straight travel from the city of San Francisco to the Festival in the Desert.
Baba Salah :: Malian Guitarist
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The Festival is modeled on the traditional gatherings and celebrations of the Tamashek people, as it is their event. These traditional gatherings were an opportunity for the nomadic Tamasheks to meet, exchange, and celebrate. Here at this music festival, musicians grace a modern stage that seemingly pops out of the sand. Accommodations consist of Tamashek tents and ground mats, and festivities include traditional singing, dancing, swordplay, camel races, and artisans' exhibits.
I received my press credentials from Ludvine, a French girl in charge of these sorts of things, and found a traditional Tamashek tent in which to put my belongings. Some fellow traveling friends made a western tent campsite, which would prove to be a nice place to store our things and to take naps away from the dune-swept landscape of my tent area. We were literally on the edge of the desert.
Festival in the Desert
The Sahara has a way of sapping all of your energy. You can drink tons of water and never pee all day! You wonder where all of it goes because you don't feel like you're sweating, yet your urine is still the color of a ripe banana. I was excited to be there, but my health was going in a different direction.
The first night I had to hit the tent early due to a high fever and a sand-congested chest. To garner some protection from the harsh heat, I bought a turban from an old Tamashek man who loved to negotiate dealings on the desert floor, in the sand. He scratched out "25,000" CFA francs. I shook my head, erased the number, and scratched "2,000" CFA francs. They love to start the dealings way out of the ballpark so it takes all day to buy three meters of fabric. It seems like a waste of time, but it's the way of doing things in Mali. [Note: The exchange rate of the dollar to CFA Franc, or African Financial Community Franc, is roughly 1 to 500.]
Tamashek Musician :: Festival in the Desert
Now, the reason we were all here - the music. Ahh, the music. Has Mali ever got it. The festival lasts for three days, and each night there are roughly six to eight different artists on the bill. We were treated to music from a handful of countries, including Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, South Africa, Ireland, Sweden, the United States, and of course, Mali. Attendees could be found gathered around the front of the stage or perched on top of a massive sand dune every night of the festival. The music usually started around 9 p.m. (a couple hours later than programmed), and my feeling was that the promoters would have liked to start earlier but due to technical difficulties weren't able to do so. Let's face it; they were trying to build a substantially-sized festival 30 miles into the Sahara Desert. I was constantly amazed at how much electrical equipment was there and even more so at the thought of bringing the gear to its present location via the inadequate road (if you can call it a road) was quite a phenomenon.
Festival in the Desert
Approximately half of the program was filled with traditional acts playing music of the desert: Takrist, Khaira Arby, Takamba Super Khoumeissa, Tamnama, Afel Bocoum, Tartit, Dimi Mint Abba, and Igbayen, to name a few. Whether Khaira Arby, the Nightingale of the Desert, was delivering her patented high-pitch vocals or Afel Bocoum, prodigy of the great Ali Farka Toure, was calling the spirits of the River Niger through his blues-laden guitar riffs, we were all put into a trance under the stars of the Sahara. My mind was only taken off the music in order to photograph the artists or to move out of the way of a frequent Toureg and his camel trying to squeeze through the crowd.
Festival in the Desert
Habib Koite of Mali played a solo set that tore through a lot of his most popular songs off of Saramaya, a must-have album. He ended with his first major hit, "Cigarette Abana (No More Cigarettes)," which set the festival on fire.
Festival in the Desert
The newest star to emerge from Mali has to be Baba Salah. He was Oumou Sangare's (Mali diva) guitarist before heading in his own direction for a solo career. I was put into a trance listening to him build and build the music into something that blew my mind just as easily as the surreal landscape in which I was experiencing it.
I met an American the next day while wandering around the area put aside for press and artists. His name is Markus James, and he lives in California. He plays slide guitar and was the only American officially on the program.
Hama Sankare :: Festival in the Desert
I must say this is a truly refreshing point of the festival: the press and artists aren't separated, which makes for some beautiful documentation. I was able to photograph the artists at will, and there were ample opportunities for taking candid photographs. In one instance, I found myself tucked in a smallish tent, listening to Hama Sankare, an extraordinary calabash (a gourd used as a drum) player known for his collaborations with the late Ali Farka Toure of Mali.
This intimate interaction between the press and the artists reminded me of stories from Jim Marshall, the well-known San Francisco rock photographer, about days past when he and the artists shared space and time and how there was none of the walls one encounters in today's music world.
I found myself hanging out with some of the best musicians in all of West Africa (and the world for that matter), but I would not have known it at all if I hadn't been hip to their vast musical talents. If some of you haven't heard of the musicians that are currently tearing it up here in the Sahara, then it's time to think twice and go out to purchase some new music. (The recommendations list is very long, so email me if you'd like the lowdown, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Essakane Allstars closing out the Festival in the Desert
We all drank tea (and our fair share of vodka) long into each evening. We ended the festival wondering if we'd ever experience something this unique and satisfying again in our lives.
As I sit here in Bamako and write about the experience in Essakane, I can still feel the sand beneath my toes, and I can still hear the endless music in the dry air of the Sahara.
Some shots previously published in the April/May issue of Relix magazine.
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