ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For 12 years there had been a Festival au Desert not far from the fabled crossroads city of Timbuktu in northern Mali.
But not this year.
“It was canceled because of the rebellion, the coup d’etat. The (festival) facilities were destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists,” said Christopher Nolan, an American who was a member of the festival’s organizing committee.
So Nolan has produced a series of concerts in North America to raise awareness of the serious political situation in Mali. The concerts are called Festival au Desert – Caravan for Peace.
One of the concerts will be Wednesday, July 10 at Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center with musicians who regularly appeared at the Festival au Desert – guitarist-vocalist Mamadou Kelly and the bands Tartit and Imharhan.
The musicians of Tartit are in Imharhan.
“They have two different motivations,” Nolan said. “Tartit is preserving cultural traditions and music in the kind of griot or bardic tradition and at the same time it is kind of upending that tradition by bringing women and men together. That’s nontraditional.”
Tartit formed in 1992 at a refugee camp.
Imharhan, he explained, is “electric and also contemporary.”
Within the two presentations of Tartit and Imharhan, Nolan said, one can see the evolution of the music of the Sahara in terms of rhythms, scales and instrumentation. He compared that evolution to what Tinariwen, a band of Tuareg musicians, has done.
“Mamadou Kelly comes from a different ethnicity. He’s more in the vein of Ali Farka Touré. He apprenticed with Ali Farka,” he said. “In Kelly, as some have said, there is the feeling and style of American Delta blues and you can hear bits of bluegrass or country. It’s a very evocative sound.”
For the festival’s dozen years it was successful in bringing together the many ethnicities of Malian society, and one of its purposes was for Malians to share and explore their multiculturalism, Nolan said.
“There is hope that the festival will resume. There are so many variables that have to work themselves out,” he said.
“But we don’t want to invite people into a conflict zone. That’s another reason to take it on the road. We want to bring an understanding of a complex society.”