There's little beyond the remote Malian town of Timbouctou but a vast expanse of desert. Most people consider it the end of the Earth, and even its residents rarely venture north into the Sahara. But for one day in January, a host of musicians, MPs, tourists and technicians gather in the town's market place, preparing to head north into the dunes. As people fill their Jeeps with diesel and supplies and travellers send quick postcards home, it's hard not to get swept up in the excitement and anticipation of the remotest music festival on Earth.
To get as far as Timbouctou, I spent three days driving from Mali's capital, Bamako, and four hours queuing for a small ferry over the River Niger. But as the convoy of four-wheel drives heads into the dunes, chucking up dust behind it, it becomes clear that the final stretch is the trickiest part of the journey. The track is soon lined with Jeeps overheating or stuck in deep sand. I later hear that even the famous Malian musician Ali Farke Toure and the country's minister of culture had problems. One group of tourists tells me that their Jeep broke down within earshot of the music, but they dared not venture on foot into the desert. The next day they found they were ten minutes' walk from the festival site.
The Tuareg, a nomadic group who inhabit the Sahara, have the most appropriate form of transport, arriving on white camels from every direction. In all, there are 1,800 of them at the festival. It isn't surprising, because the event, now in its fourth year, grew out of an annual Tuareg get-together that has taken place on this spot, near the tiny village of Essakane, for centuries.
"We have always met at this oasis to arrange marriages, swap news, race camels and make music," says Manny Ansar, the event's Tuareg organiser. "We decided to open up this festival so that our musicians can mix with others. It's time for our community to get in touch with the outside world."
As the Tuareg cook over campfires and feed their camels under the acacia trees, the tourists settle into their camel-hide tents and explore the festival site. But soon everyone is heading towards the concrete stage built into the sand, a strange sight in the middle of acacia scrub and sand. The sun goes down, and charcoal braziers light up the dunes. Then, after the long introductory speeches have ended, bands from Senegal, Niger, Mauritania and Mali take the stage one by one, playing calabashes strung with cowrie shells, lutes and talking drums. There's a brass band from Benin, a woman's group from Senegal and a group of dancers from the Wadaabe tribe of Niger that is bedecked with beads and covered in okra stripes. There are some Western performers too, including Damon Albarn from Blur and the singer Manu Chao, although the Welsh trombone group and the Navaho Indian band Blackfire aren't to everyone's taste. As the members of Blackfire hit their electric guitars and yell into the microphones, an old Malian lady with a bundle on her back claps her hands over her ears and scuttles off. My neighbour in the crowd, 21-year-old Aly Dicko, whispers, "Some older people, they think this is crazy music."
While the line-up is diverse, Tuareg bands feature more prominently than any others. Their Tuareg fans watch from the seats of their camels. From the ground, it's hard to see over the hundreds of indigo turbans that are standard attire for the tribesmen. This is clearly a Tuareg event, but there is little sense of being an outsider. As I shovel sand to try to gain some height, my Tuareg neighbours usher me forward for a better view. The sense of intimacy and respect among the small crowd is remarkable.
There's no sign that, until six years ago, these people were conducting a bloody fight for recognition within Mali. Marked by a huge bonfire in Bamako, into which Tuareg rebels threw their weapons, a 1996 peace deal gained them representation in government. Today, even Mali's prime minister is a Tuareg. …