Music Reviews
10:48 am
Thu May 30, 2013

Festival Au Desert: Music Of Peace Not Silenced By War

Originally published on Fri May 31, 2013 9:20 am

Long ago, one of my college history professors hammered home a durable truth: "If you love art," she said, "you should hate war." Because some art is always among war's victims.

A case in point is a music celebration called Festival au Desert — held near Timbuktu, Mali, since 2001 — which I will Anglicize as Festival in the Desert. In January 2012, right after the last festival ended, a nationalist uprising began in the north of Mali, which was soon taken over by hardline Islamic fundamentalists. The 2013 Festival was canceled, and even a caravan-style mobile concert was deemed too dangerous. After intervention by the French and others, the conflict has cooled down, to the point where the Festival in the Desert may return next year. In the meantime, as a special souvenir of what was celebrated in Mali, we have a new record of the 2012 shows, titled Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu.

Although it was inspired by traditional festivals held by the Touareg people, the Festival in the Desert is a distinctly international symbol of modern Africa. Popular music has become a reliable export from many African countries, increasingly recognized as a force to bring diverse people together. Frequent guests appear from outside the continent. As is often noted, rock veterans like Bono and Robert Plant have attended and performed at earlier Festivals.

That said, the folk elements of the music are a bit straight-up and unfiltered in the middle of Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu. Pure voice-and-percussion works tend to leave me cold and make language barriers harder to cross; a track called "Traditional Chant" is one I skip every time through, though that's not more serious than walking away from a stage toward one you like better. Indeed, the voice-heavy "Odwa" is pretty crazed and, at less than three minutes, a song I would never skip.

Elsewhere, swirling beats from full bands and strong singing voices erase all hesitation about exploring unfamiliar performers, though participating guitarist Habib Koite and the Touareg group Tinariwen have certainly found an audience in the West. Other songs here feature sentiments and themes with innate appeal and special resonance in the context of the Festival in the Desert — and its absence this year. One track simply praises "Democratie," while singer Khaira Arby goes for the most fundamental of all in "La Liberte."

With luck, healing and progress toward resolving conflicts in Mali, there's hope for the future of the region. Certainly one landmark would be the return of the Festival in the Desert and its loud affirmation of peace and unity.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This year, fighting and Islamist repression forced the cancellation of an annual music festival near Timbuktu in Mali. The festival highlights the music of Africa, with an emphasis on North Africa. A new album of music from last year's festival has been released. Music critic Milo Miles has a review.

MILO MILES, BYLINE: Long ago, one of my college history professors hammered home a durable truth: If you love art, she said, you should hate war, because some art is always one of the victims of every war. A case in point is the music celebration held near Timbuktu, Mali since 2001 called Festival au Desert, which I will Anglicize as Festival in the Desert. In January 2012, right after the last festival ended, a nationalist uprising began in the north of Mali, which was soon taken over by hard-line Islamic fundamentalists.

The 2013 festival was canceled, and even a caravan-style mobile concert was deemed too dangerous. After intervention by the French and others, the conflict has cooled down, and it is possible that the Festival in the Desert will return next year. In the meantime, as a special souvenir of what was celebrated in Mali, we have a newly released record of the 2012 shows, "Live from Festival au Desert Timbuktu."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: Although it was inspired by traditional festivals held by the Touareg people, the Festival in the Desert is distinctly international and a symbol of modern Africa. Popular music has become a reliable export from many African countries and increasingly recognized as a force to bring diverse people together. There are frequent guests from outside the continent. As is often noted, rock veterans like Bono and Robert Plant have attended and performed at earlier festivals.

That said, the folk elements of the music are a bit straight-up and unfiltered in the middle of the festival album. Pure voice-and-percussion works tend to leave me cold and make language barriers harder to cross. A track called only "Traditional Chant" is one I will skip every time through, though that's not more serious than walking away from a stage toward one you like better. Indeed, the voice-heavy tune called "Odwa" is pretty crazed and, at less than three minutes long, is something I would never skip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODWA")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: Elsewhere, swirling beats from full bands and strong singing voices erase all hesitation about exploring unfamiliar performers. The only two names to have appeared more than briefly in the West are guitarist Habib Koite and the Touareg group Tinariwen, once reviewed on FRESH AIR by me. Here they are the backing band for a song that may be familiar to veteran world music fans: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's "Musst Musst."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUSST MUSST")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: Other songs feature sentiments and themes that have innate appeal and special resonance in the context of the Festival in the Desert and its absence this year. One track simply praises "Democratie." Singer Khaira Arby goes for the most fundamental of all in "La Liberte."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA LIBERTE")

KHAIRA ARBY: (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: The turmoil in Mali has receded since early this year, and with luck, healing and progress in resolving conflicts can continue. Certainly one landmark would be the return of the Festival in the Desert and its loud affirmation of peace and unity.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed "Festival in the Desert Live," released on the Clermont music label. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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