Some of you may be getting your festival kicks at Glastonbury this year, some of you at Coachella or Latitude. But has anyone booked a flight to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso yet?
On the 20th of February one tiny pocket of the little known country in North-Western Africa, Burkina Faso, will come to life. An isolated patch of seemingly unchangeable African landscape will be transformed into the ‘Festival Au Desert’. The most prestigious musicians, speakers and artists from Senegal, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger and Mali arrive in musical caravans to create something magical. This is a festival, in its thirteenth year, like no other.
But this year the Festival Au Desert has been exiled. For Burkina Faso is not the ordinary home for this coming together of the best of African music. The historic region of Timbuktu in northern Mali, a land of vast picturesque deserts and ancient cities with a rich musical heritage has been banned from holding the festival. The reason behind the forced departure is sad and chilling. Forget the romance of the desert, turn off the music.
Last year separatist Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali executed a military coup against the ruling Malian government. The rebels, who have a long standing resentment of the ruling elite in Bamako, the capital, were stopped in their tracks by a number of armed extremist Islamic militia groups. The groups opportunistically snatched power from the Tuareg and took over the mantle of rebel-rulers in charge. Sharia law, a strict form of Islamic law, was installed into the newly detached region.
Provisions there may be, order there may be, but the new rulers have taken away the region’s soul, in particular Timbuktu. A ban on popular music has been put into place across the North that has devastated the population and sucked the life out of the region. Music is to Mali as food is to France, as football is to Brazil, as film is to India. One well known musician said “There is a lack of joy. No one is dancing.”
African blues music was born in Mali, artists such as Grammy Award winning group Tinariwen and Toumani Diabate (a one time collaborator with Damon Albarn) create unique sounds, sometimes happy sometimes sad but always majestically soulful. “Music regulates the life of every Malian” says prolific musician and producer Cheich Tidiane Seck. It is music that conjures up in the mind images of ocean-sized desert-scapes only disturbed by the traces of footsteps that have long strode beyond the horizon, lit up by a descending orange sun.
But since the rebels came, many with direct links to the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, everything has changed.
This is a country that is proud of its democracy, social stability, historical heritage and contemporary culture. But it has been ripped apart, the North being annexed and put under the control of people with visions, tastes and ideals that are wholly un-Malian. In fact, it has been reported that many of the Islamic commanders do not come from Mali, but are a rag tag multinational army intent on securing power for themselves at the expense of anyone in their way.
Aboubaker Balla, a tourist guide from Segou, bemoans the effect of the rebel invasion on the once prosperous tourist industry. “When there are no westerners, we just sit. All the youth are unemployed”. Western countries like the UK and France have warned tourists from travelling to the North and many have followed the advice and stayed away in the last twelve months.
But in some cases the impact of the coup has been more horrific. Since the radical Islamic groups gained control over large swathes of the North in January 2012 and imposed Sharia law, human rights abuses have become commonplace. “Stonings, floggings and amputations have become the order of the day” according to Corrine Dufka from the International NGO Human Rights Watch. She explained “In imposing their brand of Sharia law, they have also meted out a tragically cruel parody of justice and recruited and armed children as young as 12.”
If the picture painted here isn’t terrible enough the political situation in Northern Mali has an extra layer that makes the situation more complex and with the likelihood of a solution even more difficult to find.
As explained above the Tuareg rebels, a different ethnic group from the ruling government, instigated the coup initially. As a population they have long felt neglected by the ruling elite of Mali and so are disinclined to fight back against the Islamic militants because it means they will be fighting a war on two fronts. They can ill afford this, which means that for the time being, the status quo may suit them better. The whole country is in crisis, financially and politically with the Prime Minister, Cheick Diarra, having resigned before Christmas.
So for the time being, the sounds of Northern Mali have been muted. The Festival au Desert now holds a heavy responsibility to ensure the music of Mali lives on and that the people, now unable to make music, are played to in spirit.
There is no doubt that the Festival au Desert will be a joyous occasion but this year, in exile, it resonates as a protest against the appalling and worsening situation for ordinary Malians an
d should serve as a poignant message to the Mali government and the International community to facilitate peace. Mali is otherwise in danger of going in the same direction of so many African countries in that region.
Like the world got behind the music of Pussy Riot and their stand for democracy, so the world must get behind the musicians of Mali so that next year the Festival in the desert will return to its rightful home.