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.

Festival in the Desert
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.

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.

Tamashek Musician :: Festival in the Desert
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.]

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.

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.

Hama Sankare :: Festival in the Desert
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.

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.

Essakane Allstars closing out the Festival in the Desert
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,

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.

JamBase | Africa
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[Published on: 4/25/06]

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eporfodne starstarstarstarstar Tue 4/25/2006 07:55PM
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A good description of what is surely just a dream for most of us.

Jibooer starstarstarstarstar Tue 4/25/2006 08:17PM
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thank you stillgroove for bringing us back some culture, not just in your always amazing photos but with entertaining prose as well.


alabamaslamma starstarstarstarstar Wed 4/26/2006 09:04AM
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Great story, great shots. It's on my list of "must sees" before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

toestothenose starstarstarstarstar Wed 4/26/2006 10:00AM
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Josh- Thanks for the peek at your experience and journey. It has left me breathless and inspired.

chevman starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/3/2006 01:20PM
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andyhanson Thu 5/11/2006 03:57AM
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Leaving the festival to early to catch Habib Koite, we raced over the dunes to Timbuktu. Our driver Aly played a tape over and over through the night until we reached Mopti. I asked him if he had a copy. He handed me the tape. Back home i realized it was Tinariwen's Amassakoul and It is now my favorite after the Festival au Desert live album featuring Robert Plant and Lo Jo.