and here’s the clip….it was almost 2am, freezing Sahara and yet the great music kept us all warm…..can you find me somewhere on the very front …..???
Because of musical and cultural interest in Mali for long, when I speak of the country, often had to look at quizzing faces with counter question/correction ‘You mean Bali?’ – from such geographical depths, today Mali has shot up to hit the front pages all across the world, though for wrong reasons.
Here’s a piece written almost 10 years ago during happier times in Mali. Incidentally, my first ever published article, a transition from Software to Freelance writing !
Please click –
A Music Festival miles from Nowhere
As the city of Chennai is getting set for yet another music season, preparations are underway for the annual music festival in an unusual environ, 65 Kms north of Timbuctu, right in the Sahara desert. It is reported as the most remote location ever for a music festival. Early next year, the festival will run for 3 days from January 9-11.
Many of us would have heard of ‘Timbuctu’ in reference to some place geographically ‘far away’, but few know that it is located in the largest West African country Mali. Mali has a rich historical background, in the 13th century, Sundiata Keita, the respected leader of the Manding people, had strategically converted the empire to Islam and taken out a monopoly on the gold and salt trade. The remarkable traveler of that period, Iban Batuta speaks high of Mali’s culture and wealth in terms of the presence of gold in his travelogues. Like in India, gold is revered by the Manding women of West African countries even today, and passed on from mother to daughter in a family. Mali still has deposits of gold, second only to South Africa in the continent. The French made in-roads into Mali in 1898 and ruled until 1960 and today Mali is one of the rare democracies in the African continent. The 10.5 million population comprises of myriad ethnic groups with their exuberant styles of clothing and jewellery, speaks many different languages and Bambara being spoken by the majority. Mali boasts couple of World Heritage sites in the Bandiagara escarpments of the Dogon people and the mud mosque in Djenne. It is one of the poorest countries yet rich in culture.
Music is an essential part of Malian life. Indian films are shown and are popular among the Malians, who can name the stars and sing the songs with perfect tongue. In fact, it is stated that some of the leading Malian musicians got their inspiration from listening to Indian film music. Though the similarity is quite striking, Malian music is very much based on its roots with the usage of traditional instruments like Djembe drum, 21 stings harp called Kora, Kamalen N’ goni, Fulani flute, Njarka, Belafon, Calabash et al. Western instruments such as guitar,drums and violin add to Malian rhythm in today’s ’Afropop’ scene. It is said that Mali is the most musical country in Africa and to quote Salif Keita, the renowned musical son of Mali, ’ Mali produces music and musicians just like Saudi Arabia pumps out oil’. Besides Salif Keita, many others who made it to the world music scene include the divas Oumou Sangare and Ramata Diakete, Kora virtuoso Tumani Diabate and the one and only Bluesman Ali Farka Toure, who has a Grammy award under his belt. Ali Farka says that American Blues has its roots in Mali and one can prescribes to that view just by listening to his flowing melody.
Touaregs, or Kel Tamashek (people who speak Tamashek) are the nomadic tribe of the Saharan desert, scattered among Algeria, Mali and Niger. They are probably one of the least studied and most misunderstood people of the world. Their fierce appearance, contributed by ’taouglemoust’, a long turban that extends to cover most of the face to protect them from the harsh sunny and sandy environment, and stories from the past where they would gallop on camelbacks to raid villages of other tribes and carry away slaves did not help their cause much. Their men are known as the ’Indigo warriors of the desert’ as they wear indigo dyed robes that rubs off on their light-complexioned, perspiring skin. During the early 1990s there was insurgency in northern Mali as the Touaregs were demanding more autonomy from the Malian government. As the Malian army came down heavily on them, the Touaregs had to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Peace was restored in late 1990s and the government of Mali started to integrate the Touaregs in every national affair. For four years now, in an effort to rebuild their lives in northern Mali and to celebrate the rich heritage of the their culture, a yearly music festival is organized by EFES, a Touareg association with the invaluable help of certain European partners and the support of Malian Government.
I was one among the few privileged souls to have attended the festival early this year. The Touaregs came on their bedecked camels from villages far and wide and the outsiders from USA and Europe were numbering about 200 and most of them were journalists. The organizers were not keen on turning this event into a ’Woostock’ as that might threaten the Touareg community, after all, this was a ‘get-together’ of the wandering nomads of the desert.
Located at the mouth of the desert, the fabled town of Timbuctu was the starting point to get to the festival site. Hours of bumpy ride among the sand-dunes, sightings of stray camels, the inevitable flat-tire providing the much needed break from ‘head-bump-roof’ journey and marveling the transition from Sahael, arid semi-desert region, to Sahara brought us to the destination. Apart from camel-hide tents for musicians and visitors, a main concert-stage and a canopy for afternoon events, it was just an ocean of sand in every direction. There were no seats and that was fine with everyone as the natural setting was an attraction in itself. Among deserts, Sahara reigns supreme with 9 million square kilometers in area, almost as large as that of all 50 of the United States. It takes up one-third of the African continent. Its name is derived from the Arabic word ’Sahra’ meaning ’desert’. Daytime temperatures can soar upto 50’C and nights can be as cold as 0’C.
For obvious reasons, food and water were much rationed at the festival. We sought refuge in the tents from the blazing sun until 3pm when the afternoon events would begin under a canopy. At this time , it was all Touareg music and their dance called ’takamba’, a fluid movement of arms and shoulders, as the nomads of the desert watched the proceedings from atop their camels. It appeared that some groups were performing for on-lookers for the very first time as they were too shy to even look at the audience. Very likely, they would have performed for their own kith and kin in their settlements until then. As the sun disappeared in the sandy horizon, the main stage started to become active with artists that included Robert Plant of Led Zepplin, the French group LoJo, a native Indian group from Arizona, USA, leading musicians from Mali itself such as Oumou Sangare, Fantani Toure and of course, world-known Touareg bands like Tartit, Tinariwen and Tidawt. Each artist would perform about 20-30 mins. There were about 60 groups performed over 3 days. The music played was not just entertainment but an artistic expression of their culture and tradition. Charcoal-burners were set up in the sand to keep people warm as the shows went on until the wee hours when the temperature dipped to hit the other extreme. Paraffin lamps along the camping area helped in locating the tents. Besides performing hours, music would emanate from the tents as the musicians found the ‘jam-sessions’ hard to resist. The Touaregs kept their down-time busy by organizing camel races and selling their craft to festival attendees. As the towering camel riders roamed the arena, gorgeously adorned Touareg women seemed just ‘taking-in’ the ambience. It was amazing to note the masterly maintenance of their cloths in such a dusty environment. Star-filled skies above the pollution-free desert was a breathtaking sight, before we snuggled into our sleeping bags. The grand finale was by none other than Ali Farka Toure and those who gathered were in trance. Not a single show was delayed and not a single group was missing from the program chart, a remarkable feat considering the location. With the festival coming to an end, it was time to hop on the caravan of 4X4 Toyota Land Cruisers to head back to the real-world. Despite the challenges of getting there, it was nothing but ’magic’ that happened in those dunes.
Back in Timbuctu, one can feel the antiquity of this town even today with narrow sandy lanes, mud houses and people riding donkeys. The story goes that once there lived a woman by the name of Buctu, who watered the camels of the caravans that passed by the town from a well, which is called Tim in Tamashak language and hence the place came to be known as Tim-Buctu. It was the converging point of the Northern Arabic and Berber states with Black Africa. Because of this confluence, one finds Malians in both dark and light complexion. Timbuctu was the most important trading post of yesteryears as the precious salt from the desert was exchanged for gold and grains from the Southern Africa. One can still see camel caravans head to the desert and bring back slabs of salt, a round-trip that would last almost a month, crossing the unforgiving Sahara. At the town museum, age-old Islamic scriptures are exhibited as it was one of the leading seats of Islamic studies. In the early hours of the day, women bake bread in mud-oven on street sides, just like it went on for eons. There are 2 prominent mosques in town, built with mud, and after every rainy season, the whole town would be ‘up in arms’ to do the patching and repairing work. Kids on the streets offering to be guides speak perfect English in a Francophone country, thanks to tourism.
After long negotiations, mediated by African elders in traditional manner, we rented a car and headed to Mopti, a town located at the confluence of the rivers Bani and Niger and known as the ‘Venice of Mali‘. Visitors use Mopti as a base to get to two popular tourist sites in Mali, the Bandiagara escarpment of the Dogon tribe and the grand mosque of Djenne. In Mopti, we took a cruise in the Niger river and visited villages of various ethnic groups. Hippos abound in Niger, surfacing every now and then to breathe. Mopti is a bustling port town where one can see the decorative ‘pirogue’ boats.
A few hours drive from the town square brought us to Mali’s architectural jewel, Djenne. Founded in the 4th century, Djenne has scarcely changed since the Middle Ages. In the 13th to 15th century, Djenne was a rival of Timbuctu for the wealth of the trans-Saharan trade. The city is located on an island in the inland Niger delta, and is surrounded by mud brick walls. The attraction of the town, the Grand Mosque, largest mud-structure in the world transported us to Medieval times. A few years ago, using this mosque as a backdrop, an Italian photographer shot semi-nude models and that did not go down well with the locals. Unlike in Timbuctu, non-muslims are not allowed inside this mosque for this reason. A market in front of the mosque on Mondays bring the most colorful locals from nearby villages and that makes it the most touristy day of the week in Djenne. Sitting in front of the mosque, one can people-watch for hours on end, women in their flowing Bou-Bous, the traditional costume and men in Bogolong, made of mud-cloth.
Dogon country is considered to be one of the most extraordinary places on earth. Built up high on the narrow ledges of the cliffs are the villages. In the 11th century, the Dogons fled from the advancing Arabs and the Islamic invasion, found shelter in one of West Africa’s most inhospitable areas. Houses, granaries and burial sites were all built along 200 kms. long escarpment. This is such a unique place that the United Nations have declared it a World Heritage site. Dogons are animists, worshipping their ancestors and the spirits of nature. Women having their monthly menstrual cycle stay away in quarters built for that purpose. Having preserved their traditions down through the centuries, they are considered to be one of the most original civilizations of West Africa. They are known for their Kanaga masks and wood carvings illustrating their animist views. Elaborate costumes and masks are worn during Dogon dance, and some do perform on stilts. The best way to experience all of the Dogon country is to trek from village to village over rough ground and steep cliffs. When staying overnight in the villages, sleeping on roof-tops is considered adventurous, which starts right at the moment when one steps on the Dogan-ladder to clamber up, falling asleep under the canopy filled with bright stars, feeling the cool breeze unless one is unfortunate enough, as this writer, to get caught in the Harmattan winds that blows sand from the desert and waking up to the sounds of bleating goats.
A sixteen hours ride from the Dogon country in a truck that had people, goats and chicken as passengers, a typical African scenario, brought me to the capitol of Mali, Bamako. The truck would make prayer-stops, when men would jump off and kneel down on nearby fields, facing towards Mecca. Bamako was founded in 1640 and situated on the river Niger that flows 1000kms through Mali. The National Museum in town is an introduction to the history and culture of this fascinating region. Bamako has a large art and craft center where sculptures, weavers, leather workers, jewelers, and metal workers exhibit their skills and trade. Great market is a place to explore stalls that sell anything from Malian music cassettes, to fabrics, beads, brass and gold works and the variety is mind-boggling. Not everyone can take the medicine section, as shrunken animals of all kinds are on display that are believed to cure any occurring ailments. One can catch the known musicians of Mali in action in any of the numerous clubs in town. The Culture center is a great place to learn African beats on drums or few African steps in the dance classes offered.
On my last day in Mali, my host Oumou Sangare, the best known female singer in Mali took me to a ’Bapteme’, a child-christening ceremony to complement my memorable cultural experience in Western Africa.