In terms of music and culture, the Sahara is like an inland sea, where the sounds, tastes and colours of peripheral ‘port’ cities like Marrakesh, Sijilmassa, Timbuktu, Agadez, Ghardaia, In Salah, Ghat, Ghadames, Tunis, Tripoli, Siwa, Cairo, Walata, Chinguetti, Djenné and Kano have mingled for centuries.
I’ve been busy translating the lyrics for the forthcoming album by Tamikrest, the band from north eastern Mali lead by the talented Ousmane Ag Moussa. If you don’t know them already check out their existing album ‘Adagh’. One thing I always suspected but now know for sure is that Ousmane is a really excellent poet.…
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s Tinariwen who created the path,” declares Ousmane Ag Mossa, frizzy-locked leader of Tamikrest, in a pre-emptive strike against a thousand inevitable questions. “But the way I see it, if younger bands don’t come through, then Touareg music will eventually die. They created the path and now it’s up to us to walk down it and create the future.”
I first heard about the Festival in the Desert from Philippe Brix, the lean and indefatigable manager of the French global troubadours, Lo’Jo. Two years ago, on his return from one of Lo’Jo’s regular trips to Bamako, the capital of Mali, Philippe told me that the group had minted a solid and friendly relationship with a band of Touareg musicians from northern Mali called Tinariwen, which means ‘deserts’ or ‘empty places’ in Tamashek, the ancient language of the Touareg people. Philippe had also met a quietly spoken and well-informed Touareg intellectual called Issa Dicko. Dicko was a member of Efes, an official association based in Mali whose goal is to further the political, social and cultural development of Mali’s remote northern desert regions. After many conversations and cups of bitter syrupy tea they decided to stage a festival of Touareg music and culture in the desert around the first full moon of the new millennium.
That’s why the Festivals in the Desert are so important. They give a region previously ravaged by conflict and insecurity the chance to show a peaceful face to the world. They give the chance for the Touareg to prove that far from being bandits, they are a simply another African people in the pressure cooker of enforced modernisation, desperately trying to adapt their millennial nomadic culture to the merciless realities ofa modern globalised world.
When Tinariwen launch into one of their songs on one of their good nights, I’m immediately transported to the place they come from. My nostrils prick up to the smell of tea, tobacco and gasoline. The pentatonic drone of the music rolls out the endless line of the desert horizons. The perpetual polyrhythms put wanderlust back into my heart and my feet.