Last updated: 9 january, 2010 - 19:38 GMT

Festival of the Desert, a diary

Follow Caroline Jones, from BBC World Service Africa, who is reporting on the tenth edition of Mali's Festival of the Desert. She will be sharing her experiences watching performances from musicians such as Bassekou Kouyate, Amadou and Mariam, Vieux Farka Touré, Animal Collective. And following the other activities going on in the Festival, from camel races to traditional games and conferences.

You can also follow her updates on Twitter click @BBCWSafrica

Festival finale and home

The final day of the 2010 Festival of the Desert was a thrilling day for the small nomadic BBC team.

It is important to us that we represent the high quality of Tuareg music at the festival in the video sessions that we recorded.

Tuareg musicians from the northern town of Kidal in Mali

The collaborative spirit of the festival attracts visitors from all over the world

After all, the Festival of the Desert is based on a their traditional gatherings and is all about their culture, craftsmanship and of course, music.

The mainstage crowds were repeatedly thrilled by the quality of the performances from the Tuareg bands that had made the journey to take part in the event.

A dune away from our row of tents was another community of tents provided by the organisers for some of the artists.

On Saturday morning, a group of young Tuareg men, wrapped in turbans against the strengthening sun, sat jamming together in front of their tents.

There were guitars, drums, rapping, clapping and harmonies, the musicians were also joined by a participating audience of friends and fellow musicians.

It seemed to epitomise the spirit of the festival, the coming together of people for music, collaboration and friendship and we needed to bottle it.

Or video it.

The young men were musicans from Kidal a town in the north of the country, they are assorted members of three bands from the town: Amanar, Terkafte and Taliwen.

Too windy for an outside performance, six of them were pursuaded to crawl into one of their own bedouin tents - a very tight fit with camera and recording equipment taking up a good third of the inside floor area - and perform a track for the Timbuktu video sessions collection.

It felt very special to be able to capture this informal collaboration of friends, I really hope you enjoy the video when it becomes available.

The festival is about honouring Mali's musical past as well as nurturing the country's stars of the future. The name of Ali Farka Touré, the world-renown Malian musician who died in 2006 was never far from people's lips.

His name was bellowed by artists from the stage to incite entusiastics roars from the crowd, organisers put together a tribute band of his former band mates and collaborators to honour his memory and I even heard a young lad simply wandering over a dune singing gently to himself "Ali Far-kaa Touuu-re".

A man with a long shadow indeed!

(Video clip: Vieux Farka Touré and his band jams with Josh from Animal Collective. Carla Swanson)

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Emerged from his father's shadow, Vieux Farka Touré is a supporter of the festival, he held a pre-festival party-cum-jam session at his father's former home in Bamako to entertain some of the artists and friends that were going to make the journey to Timbuktu.

Vieux was at the festival this year to play the Ali Farka Touré Remembrance Set on the Friday night.

I missed it. Stage times had slipped so drastically that he didn't take the stage until after 3am.

I'm disappointed not to have seen him; and the cold will have driven many others to the warmth of their tents so I'm sure there is not just a little despair by Vieux and his management that the allotted time of 1am was not met.

Up to now Malian artists have been very generous in their support for the festival but there is an inkling that the goodwill may be fading.

A number of high profile artists billed to appear failed to show. Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabaté amongst them.

The disorganisation of the festival is well-known, you actually get the impression that it comes together a little by accident things are so haphazard.

The financial pain this year was greater.

A source involved with the festival called this year's event a "disaster", with many regular artists angry because they are not being paid what was promised. There is just not enough money to do so.

He believes the blame lies with the international governments that warned their nationals off travelling to the event because of concerns about security.

With such warnings in place, trying to get sponsorship deals from Europe or the US was an impossibility.

The management of the last night's entertainment was a little tighter than the night before but still ran an hour and a half late by the time we got to Cheick Tidiane Seck and his all-star jam session.

The 2010 Festival of the Desert audience

image by Dariusz Rosiak

But before the big man's appearance, the stage was host to some of the most diverse music I've ever heard in a single night's bill.

There was some Bach played on a violin by Frenchman, Jean Marc Phillippe. Haira Arby - who is from the desert and known locally as the Nightingale of the North - was joined on stage by funky horns from The Sway Machinery, a five piece band who play funked up reinterpretations of Jewish spiritual music. French Chanseuse and multi-format artist Anne Pigalle and Niger Tuaregs Koudede et Hassou were also on the bill.

The crowd pleasing finale from Cheick and his band included three tracks from the "Blind Couple From Mali". Amadou and Mariam are hugely popular among their fellow countrymen as well as being an international smash - a trick some othe Malian musicians have found it hard to pull off.

Looking back, whatever the festival's problems, artistically it was a fabulous success with so much to experience in that magical desert environment.

Here's looking forward to the 2011 edition.

A final thing

On a rooftop in Timbuktu town, we witnessed a moment of musical magic as the sun set into Saturday evening.

Bassekou Kouyate, his wife Amy Sacko and two members of Ngoni Ba performed a spellbinding acoustic session for our cameras.

You will be able to watch that session here soon.

Saturday - Sand and dunes...

Sand dunes in the desert

... and sand and dunes...

The festival site covers an area of about 2 square kilometres, with tour groups planting themselves in their own little settlements dispersed between the dunes.

There is no shortage of camping space in the Sahara; like there is no shortage of sand.

It is very fine sand and it gets everywhere. My digital camera has taken on a worrying new grinding sound and has become reluctant to retract the lens when directed.

A mouthful of rice crunches with each chew and it has even appeared in my underwear, but hey! What were you expecting? It's the festival of the desert!

Making progress through the soft desert sand on feet is energy-sapping, particularly in the heat of the day, but it is worth wandering around the site.

Ca va, Oui ca va, is a constant refrain. The Malian people I've met at the festival love playing host and love meeting visitors to their country.

Yes, some people want to sell you the jewellery they proffer, hand made by their mother - or the colourful blankets and textiles with a choice of stock stored on top of their heads, but it would be foolish to miss such a lucrative sales window.

Others just want to talk and share experiences. It is a warm welcome.

Tuareg merchant in the Festival of the Desert in Mali

The festival is a big business oportunity for local merchants.

Mingling with the Tuaregs, tourists, media folk and hawkers, there is a military presence.

It is not oppressive but Malian soldiers are deployed in and around the site in answer to the uncertainty about the actions of the Al Qaeda of the Maghreb group that operates in the desert to the north.

We had an alarming moment early Friday evening when a wailing siren and blue and red flashing lights tore through the site in a convoy of 4x4 off road vehicles, sand was thrown violently into the air by the spinning wheels of the convoy.

It turned out to be the arrival of Mali's minster of culture.

Like everyone else he'd heard there was some good music to be had.

A chaotic, late-running evening of brilliant entertainment followed, by midnight we were just watching the band scheduled to play at 2130.

Trying to regain some time from local band Tartit, the organisers tried to hurry them off the stage before the end of their alloted time. Disco, the band's strongwoman would not be moved.

"We have songs to play and we will play them...", and on they played.

They finally wrapped it up at about 1 am, two hours after headline Bassekou Kouyate was due on stage and just as the cold night took hold on the festival.

Tiredness won out. We de-rigged and traipsed back across the dunes feeling slightly cheated that we couldn't see the headline act.

Drifting off to sleep, I heard the crowd's cheers rise. Bessakou! I heard a cracking set from the warmth of my sleeping bag.

Friday - All about music, and dancing

I met Jay-Z! At the Festival of the Desert!

Jay-Z from Timbuktu that is, he's a 14 year old boy from the city who helped us on our first day at the festival.

Mali's own Jay-Z

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He rapped his track "Tombouctou" for us and helped us find water as we melted under the shade of our canvas accommodation, waiting for the day to slip into the realtive cool of the afternoon.

Next year though, look out for him as he could be one of the artists on stage and performing a part of this vibrant musical extravaganza in the middle of the desert.

Young Jay-Z was not our only brush with musical greatness on our first day in Timbuktu.

While others lumbered through the heat of the day we took a car into the city to meet with Cheikh Tidiane Seck, a huge and benevolent character on the Malian music scene.

A musician, collaborator, producer and arranger, Cheick has come to play at the festival bringing along a retinue of international musicians to play his end-of-festival jam on Sunday night.

We have an interview set up for him to do with Bola Mosura, the weekend Network presenter in London.

We were setting up the satellite link on the roof of the residence while, one by one, yawning and sleepy band members emerged from the rooms off the courtyard where they had slept through the heat of the day.

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We all sat around listening quietly as we heard Cheick Listen respond to the interview questions, Bola was interested in finding out his opinion on the festival's relocation from the isolated desert spot at Essakane to the more accessible desert spot 3km outside Timbuktu, a move forced by security concerns.

Cheick responded good humouredly that dunes are dunes wherever you come across them and that anyway, the music is the key element here.

You can't argue with a truism and so the only way to follow that was to play some music.

Cheick and two of his musical friends obliged us with a truly wonderful Timbuktu Session in the courtyard as dusk fell.

Cheick led with his acoustic guitar and his tip to be Mali's next big female star - Ché Ché Dramé provided the harmonies together with Kabiné Kouyaté

Children playing in the street heard the singing and stuck their heads round the gates keen to be included in the impromptu music gathering.

The musical household and their guests had set the tone for the rest of the evening, we returned to the festival site as the first evening's programme opened on the main stage.

The heat of the day made way for the notorious desert chill that comes down from the cloudless star-strewn sky, but the crowd was warm and completely up for it.

Fantani Toure performing at the Festival of the Desert in Mail

Fantani Toure, the first diva of the festival.

Music collective, 7 étoiles de Diré and traditional local ensemble Bellaferandi opened the proceedings before the first diva of the festival, Fantani Touré took to the stage in her extravagant blue costume and red head scarf that reflected her huge personality.

The crowd adored her and her big smile and even bigger voice. She went down a storm.

US act, Harper Simon, played a set in advance of headliners Tinariwen, but it got a bit lost as the crowd's excitement for the main act grew - the Tuareg supergroup are revered as heroes by the population here.

They could not and did not disappoint! The crowd exploded as they took to the stage shimmering in silver Tuareg robes and burgundy headgear

The outlawed rebel Tuaregs now embraced as national heroes and icons of Mali music.

Everyone danced - everyone. I was grabbed and reprimanded with a grin because my dancing wasn't enthusiastic enough. I stepped it up.

Thursday - From the plane to the tents

Tinariwen at the Festival

Tinariwen playing in the Festival of the Desert

(Photo: Dariusz Rosiak)

Tuareg band Tinariwen played on Thursday in the Festival of the Desert 2010 (Photo: Dariusz Rosiak).

Enlarge image

The festival charter flight took to the air with the sun newly in the sky, the rays from the east bathing the inside of the cabin with pale early morning light.

The agony of a predawn start had begun to dissipate earlier in the the departure lounge, as the collection of journalists were joined by more colourful Malian VIPs and performers meeting and greeting each other with expansive handslaps and embraces.

All trace of tiredness disappeared as we boarded when I found myself sat just across the aisle from Bassekou Kouyate and his wife - and lead singer in his band - Amy.

It was truly a flight among the stars! Mangala Camara, Habib Koite and his band, Cheick Tidiane Seck and umpteen musicians accompanying him to lead the jam session that will close the festival on Saturday night.

But as the flight readied itself for departure a wealth of guitar-slung musical talent strode down the aisle meeting, greeting and embracing excitedly.

The plane was buzzing.

Patient cabin crew tried to make their way around excited conversations in the gangways to check the secureness of the loads in the overhead lockers; banging down the hatches on the packed guitars, ngonis, cameras and ladies handbags.

There was suddenly a silence progessing from the rear of the cabin. I looked back from my seat and saw why.

A member of the flight's crew was distributing the official programme of the Festival of the Desert 2010.

Stacks of mattresses provided for artists and members of the press to drag into their bedouin accommodation at the festival

Our beds were waiting for us.

Passengers quietened as we accepted the offering gratefully and greedily poured over the pages to discover the performers and order of performances.

With the contents read and absorbed the noise level grew again as the three nights of music to come came under discussion.

The land grew steaily drier beneath us until there was nothing but sand. The plane began its descent before the onboard croisssant and coffee had been gulped down.

Timbuktu dignitaries greeted the plane.

There is general relief that the festival is going ahead and despite losing some of the audience because of the travel warnings issued by foreign governments, organiser, Mani Ansar, told us he was happy and grateful that so many people had made the trip anyway.

As we all waited for the luggage to be unloaded from the plane's hold, musicians and media made acquaintances and reacquaintances.

We made some contacts with the musicians, trying to book people's time for recording either interviews or sessions. But this is Timbuktu and things happen when they happen.

As the sun climbed higher and hotter in the sky we all piled on to the laid on bus which drove us through the streets of Timbuktu, streets lined with the iconic mud structures that define the ancient city.

US artist, Leni Stern, Amy Kouyate (wife and lead singer to Bessakou Kouyate) and New York musician Will Calhoun (Left to right)

Leni Stern, Amy Sacko and Will Calhoun (left to right) get ready for the festival start.

The road gave way to the dunes and we were transferred from the bus to a 4x4 whose highly skilled drivers swung the steering wheel to the right and to the left snaking a path through the sand.

We arrived here as the sun touched the height of its arc in the clear blue desert sky.

Just a way of life for the Tuareg people who wander through the festival site hawking brightly coloured head scarves and hand sewn bags to the tourists here.

It was the heat resistant local children who helped us complete our journey as we wilted in the fierce heat, dragging our kit to the shade of our allocated Tuareg tent.

Now I must go in search of water.

Timbuktu Video sessions


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