Park your camel, the music’s begun

As long as we’re in Mali anyway, why not arrive a couple of days early for this other music festival? Michael Kessler writes about the Festival du Chameau in the Sydney Morning Herald, “The sound of the desert blues”:

A week ago, when the doctor was jabbing me with yellow fever, polio and hepatitis shots and supplying malaria tablets, I’d tried imagining what a camel festival would look like. The Festival du Chameau [in its third year in 2008] is the brainchild of Tinariwen, the international darlings of world music – a group of Touareg nomadic musicians, purveyors of the desert blues, whose political past combined with their hypnotic electric guitars make them local heroes in this, the Adrar des Iforas region of Mali.

Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen accompanied a group of Inuit musicians to Mali, documented in a blog for the newspaper, Trail to Timbuktu; from her reports, we know the festival is underway, music is on the dunes:

There’s no down-in-front with a camel, really.

The 8th Festival in the Desert began a couple of hours ago, with several thousand people sitting and standing in the cool, white sand at the edge of the oasis at Essekane. The sun set just as the event kicked off, silhouetting robed men, veiled women and camels on all the surrounding ridges. On the small, raised stage there were speeches by notables including the local governor and Mali’s Minister of Culture.

Then the music began, with the opening provided by Tamnana, a traditional ensemble of men and women from Essekane who drum, chant, clap and ululate. They’re a big hit with the locals, and it turns out that demonstrations of musical appreciation hereabouts take the form of camel tricks. When the spirit moves them, nomads on camelback suddenly charge down from the dunes to the front of the stage, where they coax their camels down to “walk” on their front knees a much-admired feat. Or they dismount and launch sudden sword fights with phantom opponents, before swinging back up and charging the camel back and forth in front of the stage a few times. It’s the Tuareg version of the mosh pit, and it’s magical to watch, but it does tend to blot out the action on the stage.

Inuit performers in the sand at Essakane Festival, Mali, 2008 - photo by Stephanie Nolen, Toronto Globe and Mail

Inuit performers from Canada, in the sands at the Essakane Festival, Mali, 2008; photo by Stephanie Nolen, Toronto Globe and Mail.

News still travels slowly out of Mali’s desert, though. Most of the news about the Mali Festival in the Desert comes in the form of festival veterans spreading the music, in other, far-flung venuues.

Influences of the Essakane Festival of the Desert reach Salina, Kansas, where the Salina Journal talks about the music of Toubab Crewe, a group of North Caronlians who have performed at the big Mali festival in the past.

Oregon feels it, too: MacArthur Foundation grant recipient Corey Harris, a veteran bluesman whose work was featured in the PBS series on the blues, especially his work in Mali with the late Ali Farka Toure, performs at the Rogue Valley Blues Festival in Ashland, Oregon, on January 18 (that’s the Southern Oregon Mail Tribune, not Mali Tribune).

Mali, and Africa, have much more than just these few festivals. Why should we concern ourselves with the Essakane festival at all? Africa. PopMatters carries a column by journalist Mark Reynolds, reviewing events and arts in Africa in 2007, with a look to 2008. It’s a survey of events and publications, but it’s a good backgrounder for a high school student in Africa concerns, an article that should suggest connections to be made in geography, history, government and economics courses.

Thanks to Ann at Peoples Geography for the correction — Sydney Morning Herald.

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