Local Transport: The best way to go in Timbuktu. Photo: Timmy O’Neill
Located on the fringe of the mythical outpost of Timbuktu, Mali, The Festival au Desert (FaD) is a coming together of the West African nations in the sands of the Sahara. Founded in 2001, it celebrates a co-mingled musical heritage: the music is focused on the Tuareg people, yet it also shines a spotlight on the birth place of the blues. It is equal parts Woodstock, Burning Man, National Geographic and United Nations. But I can’t truly convey the experience of the festival unless I recount the journey to get there.
Quite simply, Africa blew my mind. I’d spent the previous month knocking around in Nigeria assisting Dr. Geoff Tabin’s miraculous work in cornea and cataract surgeries and then snagging an ascent of Zuma Rock. I swam in the Atlantic off the coast of Ghana. I plowed through thorn and horn in Burkina Faso’s outback. I climbed the towering sandstone fingers of Mali’s Hand of Fatima, and visited the Dogon People (think Mesa Verde’s Anasazi ruins only with tenants).
As I stepped onto the banks of the Niger River—after a rough-hewn pinasse ride from Mhopti, which included a roaring 72-hours of diesel fumes captured beneath a cramped reed canopy infested with colossal nocturnal roaches—it hit me. The realization that the punctuation between sublime moments in Africa is a hyphen of fear: the buzz you build from communing with elephants and sunsets is killed by the impending head-on, disc-compressing collisions with four-legged creatures. You’ve got to begin anew at each threshold.
The African continent encompasses astounding natural beauty and unequalled culture rooted in the birthplace of humanity, but it’s all filtered through profound modern-day deprivation. Over half of the continent’s population subsides on less than $1.25 a day. This crushing, inescapable global poverty mixed with such picturesque landscape and vibrant people informed my perspective of what it means to have amongst those that do not and perhaps gave me insight on where the wellspring of happiness truly emerges. In this land of contrasts, I learned the stark difference between stumbling in blindness and smiling in the light, the disparity between hands clutching for an angry bribe and those reaching out in friendship
The Festival au Desert condenses all of that. Thousands of people apparently sprout out of nowhere overnight amidst the shifting wilderness of a desert the size of the United States. For three days, this corner of the Sahara hosts a collaboration involving the Tuareg tradition of nomadic reunions over music, Mali’s modern musical superstars, a smattering of other mostly European acts and the support from intrepid pilgrims, including me and several hundred other Toubabs.
A stentorian-voiced emcee, shrouded in robes and turban, welcomed us in concise French. He invoked the nearby “Flame of Peace” monument, marking the 1996 truce and spot where local warring forces destroyed thousands of guns. He blessed the event’s spirit of reconciliation. I momentarily wondered about Al Qaeda’s local branch and the U.S. warnings of kidnappings. Then the bands started to play.
Tuareg music book-ended the festival with its mystical rhythms played on two string gourd guitars, percussive clapping, goat-skinned drums and ancient, nomadic lyrics about love, salt and camels. An early hit was Bambino from neighboring Niger, providing youthful, amplified Nomad Rock. My personal favorite was the Malian Bassekou Kouyate, an innovative ngoni guitarist and his super group whom expressed continual joy during a monster set of rapid fire picking, complex percussion and beautiful singing. The festival headliner was the statuesque singer Oumou Sangare, the “The Songbird of Wassoulou,” who was flanked by gyrating sequined dancers and backed by a band playing world music pop. The crowd adored her and she was hard to miss, dressed in radiant white and with an exquisite voice.
It’s hard to not stand out when you are a white splotch in a black field, especially if you’re clothed in a Mariachi outfit on stage belting out Mexican love ballads in a falsetto. That was El Charro Frances, a French performer who provided the only ‘sideshow’ act. Other international performers included Matilda Polite, an Italian ensemble who utilized violin, accordion and female harmonies to share folk songs; Spain‘s Sanjosex, with a flamenco influence wrapped around Basque rock ballads; and America’s own Joe Conte who partnered with a powerhouse of Malian all stars to infuse his harp skills with rocking blues.
Tartit closed the festival and although Tuareg music is typically played while seated, the band stood. Other international guests on sax, violin and electric guitar joined in and the night unfolded into a dancing mélange of Westerners and West Africans stirring the sand, encircling one another in a synergistic appreciation of life unfettered with strife, hunger or hatred as the sounds of unity and love poured from the stage, into the crowd and out into the world.
WATCH: See Timmy’s video footage of the festival.