Images of Mali...Festival au Desert 2011...Timbuktu

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May 7th 2011
Published: May 20th 2011
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Our encampment is a large circle of tuareg goatskin tents covered in a red dye that brushes off on our clothes and skin...Den & I share with Mike & Ros. I erect my Socceroos flag next to the From Here 2 Timbuktu flag so our Aussie presence is proclaimed...and as it turned out notwithstanding we were 4 among a group of over 20, our encampment was often referred to by others as "the Aussies"...maybe it was our wedding on Day 2 (see next blog)...or maybe it was because we had just lost the Ashes and the Poms among us liked to rub it in...or maybe it was 'cause we had travelled the furthest to be here!

Anyway our group was the best of the best...everyone got on well and all had one thing in common...we had all defied "Do not Travel" warnings..."to the Festival of the Desert or Timbuktu" issued by Western Governments and were hyped to be here.

Due to security concerns the Festival was held in the sanddunes of the Sahara Desert outside Timbuktu rather than its usual site at Essakane which is 60kms away into the desert. I did not mind not having to brave hours of dunesurfing or digging 4WDs out of eternal sand to get there! This way locals, vendors and others could attend daily from town, who may otherwise have been unable to attend...and as it is probably the largest event in Northern is important that they have the opportunity to do so.

I did not discover this 'til our return journey, but it was a blessing to be where we were. Essakane is notorious for cram crams...the vilest, most incidious, vicious, spiteful and annoying of God's creations...a minute bundle of hooked barbarous burrs...seeds from a plant that knows the only chance of finding soil to set root in... is to attach to humans and don't let go. I discovered them when I went for a leak on the way back to Douentsa after the festival. I walked through sand next to a lake in a slight breeze and on return to the 4WD I was covered in them! Well the good news is for some reason there were no cram crams at the Festival in the Desert 2011...just sand, sand and more sand.

The Festival celebrates the 1996 settlement of the Tuareg uprising against the south, when 3,000 rifles were burnt at Timbuktu. This is its 11th Edition...a celebration of some of the best music Africa has to offer...the home of Desert Blues.

The Tuaregs arrived by camel...masses lined up abreast...lines of camel heads or indigo turbans peeking over the crest of the dunes...then head into the Festival in on their backs.

Day One
After dinner we head off to the stage area...surrounded by steep dunes packed with spectators...a natural amphitheatre. First speeches in French then summary in English...including a poignant "We thank our visitors from overseas who have been brave enough to be here. We are so grateful..."...then "apologies that Tinariwen due to a family tragedy will not be with us this year"...silence in respect...everyone was looking forward to them.

And then started 3 nights of music...7.30pm to 3 or 4 am...bands changing each hour...a smorgasbord of music from the birthplace of Blues...predominantly from Mali, but also Niger, Senegal, Mauritania and international guests.

Matilde Politi with her vibrant traditional Sicilian music...then it happened...Samba Toure...protege of the late Ali Farke Toure and Toumane Djabate came on and played his tribute to Ali. We went to standing room in front of the stage...and danced and danced...locals fighting their way through the crowd to join us. I now understand why Ali Farke Toure is so revered...the music was hypnotic...and there was no better place to be to hear it.

Each night when we would arrive at the stage after that locals would press to dance with us...Dancing Dave was in his element...and all my practice getting here paid off.

Jeconte & the Malian Allstars were next...a long plaited American harmonica player with top guitarists rocked the desert...and we danced frenetically to them as well.

A boy with a stick who moved like Michael Jackson loved to dance with me. We put our hats to strobe setting, lent him one to wear and danced. A large crowd gathered around us, clapping, yelling & whooping as the boy & I danced our hearts out. What a buzz.

Den & I quit the dancefloor at 1 a.m. and staggered through the sanddunes to our tent. It was as if my head was next to the I enjoyed the music until it ceased for the night.

Tomorrow is our Tuareg wedding...and Guy has organised a Tuareg band...I can hardly wait.

Day Two
Our Tuareg wedding (see next blog).

That night we headed off to the stage in our wedding gear...and locals pressed to dance with us...lets rock! Another late night and then drank tuareg tea around the fire as Baba Salah played his guitar behind his head and back... into the early hours.

Day Three
We wake and dust is all over us in our tents. We head off early for a camel ride for a couple of hours into the desert. On the outskirts I sight snipers lying on dunes. The President of Mali is coming today... today are camel races ...and also they are determined to ensure the Westerners who "have been brave enough to come" are safe.

Guy comes and asks us if we would like to view a sheep being killed for a feast that night. I politely decline ...but as it is in direct sight of our tent and is hanging up, it is hard not to see it being skinned and drained. Two of our English women compatriates have birthdays today...sheep cooked in a pit in the centre of our encampment will be a great way to celebrate.

We head off for the camel races at 3pm and take up various positions near the finish line. Heaps of 4WDs and soldiers appear...the President has arrived. Mike & I head up the track for better positions for photos. We see 4 races...those poor camels look knackered as they approach the Finish line...some fall..try to get up...the ones leading usually overtaken at the line...whooping...cheering...good times.

Guy & Johanna ride by on camels...Johanna's sits down in the middle of the track to her consternation..."get up...please!"

Then off to the stage where the cream of Malian music has come together to play for the President.

Den & I return to our camp and the sheep is not yet cooked..."OK we'll be back"

When we return to the stage a young tuareg boy comes up to Den sitting on a dune. "I have been looking for you for two is your change" as he hands her 2,000 cfa. She puts it back in his hands "I want you to keep it...and thank you for your honesty." He smiles and disappears into the night. One of many examples of Malian honesty we encountered on our trip.

Excellent...Etran Finatawa...a Tuareg and Wotabe band from Niger...two Tuareg with massive electric guitars and three Wotabe drummers/percussion and vocals. I dance with the man grabs his son and pulls him away from me...I guess Dad does not approve of this infidel!

Return to camp and the birthday feast is in full swing so roast lamb then back to the stage...

"I need to dance" as I often tell Hamma. He would always answer "Please don't David...please don't." I often would sidle up to him and whisper in his ear as if it was something important "I need to dance" to which he would reply "I know David...I know you do". We had these exchanges all over Mali...and we cracked up each time.

Enjoyed Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba with their lyrical 4 string guitars...Vieux Farka Toure (Ali's son) then Oomou Sangare, a diva of Malian music that we had seen a couple of months before at the Sydney Opera House.

Day Four
The camp area is dismantled early. The water has been turned off...the wicker toilet enclosures are gone!

We pile into 4WDs and return to our old hotel at Timbuktu. We get our same room again...I'm happy with that, as the toilet and shower work...which is not the case with some of the other rooms...and there are beds...bliss...

Den's mobile phone wakes us in the middle of the night...I stagger up & answer it.

"Dad...I got into the car ...and put the key in and it wouldn't start."

It is our daughter ringing from Sydney, Australia.

"What....what do you want me to do? Its 3.30 am and we are in Timbuktu"!

Relax & Enjoy...

Dancing Dave (who danced & got married at the Festival in the Desert....& is glad he did so...)

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