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Festival au Desert feature header

Please Don't Stop The Music

You can’t stop music; it’s a part of us – Oumou Sangaré

Those are the words of a world-renowned artist, one who’s been in the music industry for over 20 years. They’re the words of an artist whose music can’t be heard throughout her country. The beautiful music she creates never wanders north of the West African country.

By now you’ve probably heard of the tension in Mali. You must have heard about the manuscripts of Timbuktu and the Taureg rebels (click here for more info). You might even know of prominent Malian artists such as Oumou Sangaré and the likes of Salif Keita and Toumani Diabaté. But do you know of Manny Ansar? What about the Festival Au Desert (Festival of the Desert) or maybe even the Caravan of Peace?

Mali in the spotlight 

Once referred to as one of three West African empires due to their trade in precious commodities and slaves, this country has been making global headlines for its conflict. In January 2012 a war broke out in the country’s northern region. It became characterised by images of rebels on the rampage, a myriad of human rights violations and with that came the silencing of the country’s artists. That period also signalled the end of western ways which had been adopted by so many of the Malian people.  This included their ability to listen to anything but Quranic music. Lashes were an appropriate form of punishment for an assortment of wrongdoings ranging from smoking to adultery.

The day the music died 

Tuareg artists performing at the Festival of the Desert
Mali is a country which identifies itself through song, where history is shared by word of mouth and there’s a dance for every milestone. It’s a nation whose music is so complex and diverse, yet it has managed to tap into almost every genre in the world.

Mali is celebrated throughout the globe for this particular richness, which has been celebrated by the Malians for decades in the desert. Their festivities - getting together for catch-up sessions, sharing in music and camel races - has grown. Over the years it’s captivated the world and has become more open to other countries and cultures joining in. Mali’s Festival in the desert has gained a reputation of becoming one of the globe’s must-see, must-do, bucket-list type of events. 

Traditionally located in Essakane, just two hours north of Timbuktu, getting to the Tuareg music spectacular has often been referred to as a test of durability. The north has also been the most volatile region in Mali. Now, due to the insurgents, the celebration’s been moved twice, further into Timbuktu. The festivities have ultimately been forced into exile in the last year. 

Manny Ansar

Manny Ansar caught a lot of South Africans attention when he paid the country a visit at the end of 2012. This isn’t because he is a foreigner or the way he dresses. His mission of spreading the news of his country and the state of emergency that was fast approaching the northern region captured the hearts and minds of South Africans. Ansar told of life under a stricter and more archaic form of *Sharia law. He simply wanted to garner support, to remind people to fight for the music and the musicians’ right to perform in Mali.

Ansar is now back home in Mali, but living in the more moderate region of Bomako - South Mali. Besides sharing Islamic faith with the Al-Qaeda insurgents, he doesn’t agree much with the way they have imposed their rules on the people in northern Mali, especially with regards to music. “They say it’s satanic, how could it be? Traditional African music and Islam have lived alongside each other for a long time and there was none of this.” 

Vanessa Perumal and Sibongile Khumalo as well as Perumal with Manny Ansar

Ansar who is the director of the Festival of the Desert believes the cultural and religious intolerance left them no choice but to move the festival out of the country. Fresh violence between rebels and French troops erupted at the beginning of 2013, leaving them no option but to postpone this year’s showcase. He says they are looking at hosting the festival later in the year, but their greatest dream is to go back home, to have the festival in Timbuktu. 

The festival adopted the name Caravan of Peace in the middle of 2012. The name was to be used in exile whilst travelling around the continent rallying support for Malian artists and giving them a platform to show off their work. 

In the past year the festival has also gained support from U2’s Bono who performed at the gathering in Mali and former United States President Bill Clinton. Artists here at home have also joined the fair.

The South African connection

This comes in the form of publicist Vanessa Perumal, the owner of JT Communications, who says she didn’t hesitate when presented with the opportunity to team up with Ansar. “I’m determined to help them spread the message of unity amongst African artists and their people.” Perumal is visibly shocked when she recollects stories she’s read and heard about life for musicians living in North Mali. “Imagine not being allowed to perform. Can you imagine hosting a concert being considered a life threatening risk? Can you imagine getting your fingers chopped off because you were playing an instrument?” It’s her shock and obvious concern that pushed her to rally some of South Africa’s great talents to become friends of the movement. Among them are Sibongile Khumalo, an iconic artist whose remarkable music has earned her numerous accolades and fans around the global community, and Pops Mohammed, who’s at times referred to as South Africa’s ambassador for traditional music.

Perumal sees the festival as a gateway to Africa, a port where the continent could expose its ideas to the world and a way for the western world to understand the continent and its heritage a little more.

Just two days ago Mali seemed to be making some sort of headway. The Tuaregs with the assistance of the French army had taken back most regions around the north of Mali. This allows people to return back to the democratic ideals they had adopted but were forced to give up about a year ago. According to media reports the next step is to hand over the city to United Nations peacekeepers, which could see the festival live out its 13th year back at home in the region of Timbuktu or better yet before 2013 ends. 

Either way the plight of the Malians and the bravery of people like Ansar; who’ve gone out to the world and shared their stories countless times in the hope of bringing change to their country doesn’t seem to have been in vain.

* Sharia law:  It’s the code of law derived from the Koran and from the teachings and Prophet Mohammed.
* Images courtesy of Festival Au Desert & JT Communications

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