On the morning of festival day there was an exodus from Timbuktu. I negotiated a ride in the back of a truck out to Essakane, where it would all happen. It’s two hours from Timbuktu, further into the desert. My feet hung over the edge of the flatbed truck and they were whipped by low scrubby grass which grew in tussocks in our path. The track soon turned to sand and we cruised up and around dunes on the way to Essakane.
The place had an air of chaos. There were loose-robed Tuaregs riding camels here and there, the rugs and halters of the camels brightly decorated in coloured woven fabric. The riders sat on wooden seats and rested their feet comfortably at the camels’ neck. A more modern variety of Tuareg was criss-crossing the site at breakneck speed in dusty landcruisers. Tents made of canvas and hessian were set up in rows, selling food, locally made jewellery, clothing, fabrics and artwork. I noticed one stall selling decorated swords and shields.
Tuaregs are no strangers to conflict; armed with broadswords and daggers they put up a fierce resistance to French colonisation early last century. And since independence there have been uprisings, as they have fought for recognition and justice for their nomadic way of life.
This festival is their celebration. The stage was at the base of a tall, curved dune, providing a natural amphitheatre. I sat at the top to take it all in. The aroma of spicy food wafted on the air, and I wandered amongst the softly lit tents in search of a meal. Inside crouched Berber men pouring glass after glass of sweet green tea, and women stirring large pots of hot food. I was beckoned in to one and was served a bowl of cous cous and spicy goat meat.
As darkness fell, fires were lit in drums and the music began. The festival is a showcase for Tuareg music and there were traditional chants and dances. The stage was crowded with groups of twenty singers, swaying and clapping as they sang. There was also music from across Mali, Africa and around the world - blues, hip hop and jazz. Ouma Sangare’s bewitching voice, Toumani Diabate delicately plucking his kora – the African harp whose lilting notes drifted with the wood smoke into the night sky - and Afel Boucomb appeared, but most anticipated was Tinariwen.
Comprised of former rebel soldiers trained by Colonel Gadaffi, the members of Tinariwen have traded their guns for guitars, and these desert poets have now captured imaginations across the world. With vocals switching between rapid-fire spoken word, harmonised haunting wails, and call and response between male and female singers, their music speaks of the struggle of the Tuaregs. Their battle for survival in harsh desert lands where they are oppressed from all sides but do not give up their spirit of resistance. Tinariwen do it all – they fight, they philosophise and they make music that breathes like wind in the dunes. The loping beat of their rhythmic electric blues is said to be based on the gait of a camel walking. The night exploded in light and dancing.
At three I went to bed – a mosquito net hung from a branch with my sleeping bag rolled out on the sand beneath. At four the harmattan began blowing. It penetrated tents, bringing fine gritty sand into eyes, mouths and noses. People emerged in the morning brushing the sand from their hair and face, but with the wind still blowing, it was pointless. In a daze they walked around bent against the wind, turbans wrapped around heads, eyes squinted and wondering if this is what the end of the world looked like. It was grey and miserable and there was nowhere to hide. The wind blew until mid afternoon, when it finally eased. The night sky, when it came, was speckled with stars, the air was still and everyone was ready to celebrate the final night of the festival.
With the recent death of local legend Ali Farka Toure, the patron of the festival was now Habib Koite. He took to the stage with his band Bamada and played his joyous Malian griot music, with the talking drum and the harmonica, the balafon and the calabash, and the beautiful vocal harmonies brining the night to life again. The drums were beaten and the playful notes of the balafon (West African xylophone) rang out and the crowd responded with cheers and smiles. Atop a Saharan sand dune, beneath a glowing sky we danced to this music of the earth; a vibrant collection of people blown in from all corners of the globe to this desert enclave lit up in the African night.