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The Festival in the Desert

The city/town of Timbuktu, Mali, was one of those places of legend that it was impossible to get to, that is until the turn of the 19th century, when French and British explorers finally set foot in the place. But it is probably the best known thing about this landlocked West African country straddling both desert and jungle. 

The golden city in the middle of nowhere was only made of adobe and dust, a largish town with the great river Niger on the one side and the great Sahara desert on the other.

Caravans from the salt mines brought the valuable edible rocks to the boats waiting on the river in exchange for other goods. The glorious city of treasure was a myth, or so it seemed to the west, but it's what westerners knew of as a place in Mali. That's is until the Festival Au Desert began.

About 10 years ago, around the turn of this century, the Festival of the Desert  was born. It is a cross between Lollapalooza and Burning Man festivals (which are not in Timbuktu) but in the desert about a 60 miles to the northwest called Essakane, which is truly the middle of nowhere about two hours from Timbuktu.

Created in January 2001, the Festival Au Desert is held every year in January -- this year from January 7 - 9, 2010. This festival has its origin in the big traditional Tuareg festivities, as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, which, for a long time, was a place for decision-making and to exchange of information among the different communities. At the beginning, there were Tuareg dances, singing, poetry, camel rides and games.

Today, the Festival is opened to the world at large and welcomes artists not only from other Malian regions, other African countries, but also from Europe and the rest of the world. During the three days, around 30 groups from around the world present their art.

The only way you can get there -- if you aren’t a fabulously wealthy rock star or industrialist and can travel by helicopter -- is to take a 4x4 or jeep from Timbuktu, which has an airport; Air Mali adds a couple of flights to their twice a week schedule to Mali’s capital of Bamako, via the nicer city of Mopti, just for the festival.

It’s possible to take a boat down the Niger or you can take a bus, a trip that lasts a full day of travelling the 350 miles over mostly dirt roads, and with the State department saying that some Tauregs have decided that holding Americans for ransom is a responsible career opportunity… Flying is the only option.

Once you get there, you have to take a look at Timbuktu, which is actually a pretty decent town, although the souvenir salesmen will follow you wherever you go throughout your stay. There isn’t much there, although the Libyan government is investing a ton of money in the place, building a huge, grand hotel right on northern edge of town, which may or may not be open by 2011.

And once you get to Essakane, the tour company will escort you to your tent; there are no hotels there, and for the next three days you will "rough it” in a luxurious way. To preserve the traditional aspect of the festival you cannot setup your own tent; you are provided with Taureg tents. However, you are free to setup your tent inside the ones  provided -- if it fits.

Bring batteries for equipment since the number of plug-in spots are few. Also bring tweezers, sleeping bag and torch light.  Make sure you drink two liters of water a day during the festival. And do not forget, it can get cold at night (5 to 10°c) depending on the year.

The cream of the Sub-Saharan music scene shows up, and it doesn’t really matter if you’ve ever heard of Salif Keita or Ousmane Kouyat or any of the other musicians, they’re all really good. But still, to see Keita is a real treat.

Scheduled for the 10th anniversary festival are:

Local artists: 

Tamnana, Tabol , Igbayen, Tachidialt, Tindé, Shallo, Kabalala, Takamba Super Khoumeissa, and Amanar de Kidal. They all represent different styles of music and dance traditional to the regions of Northern Mali (mainly tuareg).

All of them are confirmed and will be performing on the small stage called “Scène Dune”, which is a stage designed on the traditional style on the sand.
Malian national artists;
Salif Keita (TBC) , Afel Bocoum (C), Vieux Farka Touré (C), Oumou Sangare (C), Amadou & Mariam (C) ,Tinariwen (C), Tartit (C), Terakaft (C), Habib Koïté (TBC), Cheick Tidiane Seck (C);Toumani Diabaté (C), Bassekou Kouyaté (C), Kassé Mady Diabaté (TBC), Fantani Touré (C) ,Baba Salah (TBC), Haira Arby (C), Tialé Arby (C); Mangala Camara (TBC), Ahmed Fofana (C), Africa percussion (TBC). 

Performing on the main stage.
African artists: 

Special Niger: Mamar Kassey, Tarbiat, Etrane Finatawa, Koudede, Rhissa Ag Wanagli , Kel Assouf (TBC) 

Mauritanie: Dimi Mint Abba/ Noura Mint Seymali (TBC) 

Sénégal: Viviane N’dour (TBC) 

Ethiopie: Manalemosh DIBO (TBC) 

Performing on the main stage.
International artists: 

Dick et Hnatr (Authentic Kanak group from Nouvelle Caledonia) (TBC)
Leni Stern Band (USA, Maroc, Sénégal) (C),
Harper Simon (USA) (C),
Dady Dasty ( Martinique ) (C),
The Sway Machinery USA) (C)
Paul Oakenfold (Dj et spectacle Laser) USA (TBC)
Matzik ( France) en création avec Mamar Kassey (TBC)
Nouvelle R (France) (TBC)
Jean Marc Phillips (France) (TBC)
Quimi Portet (Catalogne) (C)
Performing on the main stage.

Deacon (Animal Collective) (C)
Gang Gang Dance (C)
Performing on the small stage at late night
Permanent animation: 

Malian Military Band (TBC)
Maak Spirit ( Belgique) (C)

Sept Etoiles de Diré (C)
Oumar Konaté et Annane Sy (C)

The main American specialist in this area is Palace Travel of Philadelphia.

Fulani Travel in Dolgellau Wales, UK also books trips there:

They both partner with local companies who can be found at the Festival’s website:

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