Festival au Desert Essakane! January 10-12, 2008

BBC’s internet services carried this slide and sound account of the 2007 Essakane festival in far off Mali; this is one music festival I would really like to attend. Snippets of songs crop up on NPR or PRI (especially The World), and on PBS, and in record stores with really savvy staff — or where Putumayo discs are on sale. Everything I have heard from these festivals is very, very good.

Robert Plant helped make it famous with his 2003 performance. But its fame is relative; it’s famous only among a select group of people — those who have heard the music.

[Alas, Vodpod died, and the video that I had captured via that service seems to appear nowhere else on the web.  If you should find the piece by Paula Dear which the BBC broadcast in 2007, please note it in comments.]

Vodpod videos no longer available. from news.bbc.co.uk posted with vodpod


The festival is set for January 10-12 in 2008. Who is playing? Where are news stories? Where are the CDs? Here’s the official website.

Geography teachers, think of the possibilities this festival offers for fun in the classroom! Adam Fisher wrote about it for the New York Times a couple of years ago:

My real aim is Essakane, an obscure desert oasis a half-day’s drive beyond Timbuktu, and the site of what’s billed as the “most remote music festival in the world.” It’s a three-day Afro-pop powwow held by the Tuareg, the traditionally nomadic “blue people” of the Sahara.

It’s a tribe often feared for the banditry of its rebels and respected for the fact that it has never really been conquered. Historically its great power came from its role in the trans-Saharan trade in gold, slaves and salt. Even now, Tuareg caravans make the 15-day journey south from the northern salt mines to Timbuktu on the Niger River. They rest their camels during the day and use the stars to navigate at night. The skin tint of the nomads comes from the indigo dye they use for their turbans and robes, which leaves a permanent stain.

What more exciting stuff do you have in your classroom on the Tuareg? Does it resonate better with your teenagers than this story would?

Woodstock had nothing on Essakane, as Smith describes it:

When we finally get to the festival site, we’re deep into the desert. It’s beautiful. The sand is exceptionally white and fine and pure, and for the first time since I’ve touched down in Africa, everything seems clean. There are camel-skin pup tents for shelter at night and bigger tents for shade during the day. A variety of cafes are scattered about, improvised out of a cooler and maybe a few chairs.

Most astonishingly, there are flush toilets – permanent stalls built for the festival – standing incongruously among the dunes.

There are about 800 Westerners here, a predominantly European crowd, and approximately 6,000 Malians, most of them Tuareg, who arrive on gaily decorated camels, which outnumber the four-by-fours by seven to one. Goats and donkeys roam the grounds freely. Bread is baked the traditional way, in a hole dug in the sand. I see a sheep’s stomach inflate after being filled with hot coals and organ meats and then twisted shut – it acts as a sort of pressure cooker. At one point a bar fight between two young Tuareg is broken up by a contingent of elders who gallop over to adjudicate from their wooden saddles. Spontaneous jam sessions erupt everywhere else.

Fans of the late Ali Farka Toure probably know something about the event. Mali’s rich musical tradition almost broke through to U.S. airplay with Toure. Toure’s 1994 collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, produced the haunting, droning tune used by The World for their daily Geo-Quiz. It won a Grammy in 1995, Best World Music Album.

This is one festival that, if you go this year, or next year, you’ll probably get there well before the tourists find it and ruin it. The San Francisco Chronicle explains why the festival is unspoiled so long:

Many of the groups came from across Mali, representing the myriad ethnic and tribal groups that make up the country.

During performances, some Muslim audience members interrupted their enjoyment of the music to pray toward Mecca. Many local tribespeople attended on camels, watching concerts from atop their animals. They could do that because sand surrounded the open-air stage. (The Sahara stretches out in every direction from Essakane.) There were no seats, really — and that was fine with everyone. The natural setting of the festival was an attraction for many, even if it meant putting up with large sand beetles that roamed the grounds.

The Festival of the Desert has set a standard for what is possible in the middle of a remote area. Essakane has fewer than 200 residents, guides say. The nearest city is Timbuktu, which for centuries represented geographic distance and inaccessibility. (Timbuktu is three hours away by four-wheel- drive vehicle.) If there is ever a paved road built to Essakane (which is unlikely), the atmosphere of the festival could change as more people attended.

Toure’s concert was watched by fewer than than 700 people.

“I hope it stays in a noncommercial way, with a friendly atmosphere,” says Denis Pean, a harmonium player with the French group Lo’Jo, which performed here and who also helped start this festival three years ago. “All the artists who participated did so in a positive way. The world needs that.”

Can’t go this year? Here are sources of information, photos, movies and music; sources that could enrich classrooms and tell a great story about Africa, Mali, and the Tuareg:

  • Sekouba Bambino, 2006:
  • Oumou Sangare (with Ali Farka), 2003:
  • Traditional Tuareg song:



2 Responses to Festival au Desert Essakane! January 10-12, 2008

  1. This can be an enormously high excellent post you could have published there!


  2. Ediacaran says:

    Gotta love those Putumaya World Music sampler CDs. I got some French ones (to help me study the language, and get a little French culture), and got hooked on several of the artists. Apparently French President Sarcozy has gotten hooked on one in particular as well, as he is now dating singer/model/heiress Carla Bruni. For more musical tie-ins, Bruni’s past boyfriends include Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. Thanks for the info on the festival.


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