Festival au Desert, held on the outskirts of Timbuktu, Mali, was considered one of Africa’s premier festivals for music, dance and cultural exchange. Due to violence from separatist extremists in the north, the festival has not been held in recent years in its original form. But the spirit of Festival au Desert is still very much alive, and hopes to return to its original roots in the years to come. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Mali’s Festival au Desert.
Sources: Festival-au-Desert.org, TheFestivalintheDesert.com, Fest300.com, NPR.org, OnePercentClub.com, MediaSanctuary.org
The first Festival au Desert was held in Tin Essako in 2001, and in Tassalit in 2002 in the Kidal region of Northeastern Mali. In 2003, the festival moved to Essakane, located deep in the Sahara Desert in northernmost Mali. Essakane became Festival au Desert’s fixed spot from 2003 to 2009. Keeping the same location meant that organizers could begin to build permanent, durable installations that could be used for tourism promotion outside of the festival. These helped cut down on the preparation time each year.
Festival au Desert follows the traditions of larger Tuareg festivals such as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temekannit in Timbuktu. Those festivals were strictly for Tuaregs and were based around times when the nomadic people would gather for decision making and cross-community collaboration. Music, dancing, poetry and other festivities were always commonplace at Tuareg festivals. These formed the origins of Festival au Desert.
Though the focus of the festival has always been on Tuareg music, artists from all over Africa performed at Festival au Desert, and the event was open to all. Performers such as Tartit, Oumou Sangaré, Lo’Jo, Django, and Ali Farka Touré have all played at Festival au Desert, and acts such as the Tuareg band Tinariwen first began to attract international attention when they played at the festival in 2001.
Bono and Robert Plant are among the international stars that attended and performed at Festival au Desert. In this way, the festival also represents a distinct international symbol of modern Africa, and the blending of other cultures with customary Tuareg traditions.
Festival au Desert’s unique line-up and cultural heritage led to comparisons to other great world festivals and cultural gifts. It was described as a unique mixture of “Burning Man,” a music and arts festival held in the desert in California, and “One Thousand and One Nights,” a collection of folk tales that originated in the 600s to 900s C.E., also known as “Arabian Nights” in the West.
2010 was the beginning of Festival au Desert’s decline due to security issues in the Timbuktu region. Organizers moved the event farther away from Essakane and the trouble brewing in Timbuktu. The festival managed to hold on for another three years, however, until the situation became entirely untenable to hold the event.
Festival organizers say Festival au Desert is “in exile” due to unrest in Mali that began just after the festival’s 2012 installment. A nationalist uprising in the north was soon taken over by hardline Islamic fundamentalists, and security concerns forced organizers to cancel future plans. Though the conflict has subsided significantly, the festival has yet to return in its original form.
Festival au Desert could no longer be held in Mali, so organizers took Malian music across the globe with a Caravan for Peace. Exiled Malian musicians have come together to travel throughout the world sharing their music with new audiences, and they’ve been wildly successful. As one festival enthusiast wrote, “In solidarity with the Festival in the Desert many musicians are determined to take a message of peace across Mali and abroad. The Caravan for Peace presents some of the best of those artists and their efforts to testify to the endurance of their music, art and culture. Musicians and festival organizers want the conversation to move beyond violent conflict into a more productive conflict resolution. Live performances showing Malian music is one small but vital step to keep attention to the crisis.”
In 2015, the Cultural Caravan for Peace was launched. Three music festivals – Mali’s Festival au Desert, Morocco’s Festival Taragalte and Mali’s Festival sur le Niger – worked and traveled together to promote cultural diversity, peace, tolerance, and social cohesion among the peoples of the Sahel and Sahara. Through music and art, the Caravan gives the people of the Sahara and Sahel region a platform to meet, exchange ideas, and promote and preserve cultural heritage.” The Caravan set up in M’hamid, Morocco, for the Festival Taragalte, then traveled to Mali where it staged events in Ségou at the Festival sur le Niger. In lieu of Timbuktu, the Caravan held events in Mopti for Festival au Desert’s component.
Due to an improving political landscape, Festival au Desert announced its return in January 2014 to Northern Mali. The new Malian president described the event’s importance, saying it is Mali’s “premier tourist and cultural attraction and an important symbol for celebration and unity.” However, Tuareg separatists ended up abandoning the peace process and the security situation once again deteriorated, forcing organizers to call off the festival.
A multitude of documentary films have been made about Festival au Desert, increasing international awareness of and support for the event. Films such as “The Last Song Before the War,” and “Woodstock in Timbuktu” have all documented the festival and its exile. The film, “Dambé: The Mali Project” received international acclaim. It follows two Irish musicians who traveled more than 3,000 miles to explore the connections between Celtic and African music.
The music and traditions that Festival au Desert represent for Mali have become so integral to the country’s identity, that the return of the festival to Northern Mali will mean more than a tourism boom. It could also signify the beginning of reunification in a country that has seen a split between the north and south. The return of the festival could also be a strike back against extremists who attempted to ban music altogether.