Nomadic revelry

Mali's Festival in the Desert has inspired others to pitch their tents in the Saharan wilderness.
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The Independent Culture

There is something undeniably romantic about the sounds of Touareg music in the Saha-ra desert. Among scrubby trees and camel-leather tents, under a vertical volcanic peak and a canopy of stars, the hypnotic chanting, pulsating rhythms and exuberant ululations make an intoxicating cocktail. The music needs to be intoxicating, perhaps, when there isn't a beer to be had for a thousand kilometres. The event is the first Festival of Saharan Tourism, held in Tamanrasset, south Algeria, slap-bang in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

There is something undeniably romantic about the sounds of Touareg music in the Saha-ra desert. Among scrubby trees and camel-leather tents, under a vertical volcanic peak and a canopy of stars, the hypnotic chanting, pulsating rhythms and exuberant ululations make an intoxicating cocktail. The music needs to be intoxicating, perhaps, when there isn't a beer to be had for a thousand kilometres. The event is the first Festival of Saharan Tourism, held in Tamanrasset, south Algeria, slap-bang in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

On stage is the singer and oud-player Zoukelli with a wild violinist and a troupe of clappers and drummers peering through slits in the tight swathes of their turbans. Zoukelli is a local guy from Tamanrasset so there's an instant rapport with the crowd with cheers and ululations urging him on. It's close to freezing at night, but this is very much music of the open air. The drumming and clapping is music born around the fire and needs to waft like smoke into the night.

Traditionally nomadic, the Touareg are found mainly in Mali, Niger and Algeria, countries whose borders meet in the Sahara. There are only around 150,000 Touareg in Algeria, and this festival is also about introducing their culture to the rest of the country.

Sitting imperiously atop tall camels, strikingly swathed in blue robes and turbans, the Touareg hold an enigmatic fascination for visitors. And desert festivals are currently all the rage. Mali's Festival in the Desert has been extraordinarily successful over the last four years, generating more column inches in the British press than any Malian news or political story.

Inspired by their example, a festival of nomadic music was held in neighbouring Mauritania last year, and Morocco's music festivals include the funky Gnawa and World Music Festival in Essa-ouira which attracts 200,000 people, and the Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes, which over 10 years has become one of the great music festivals of the world - an unbeatable marriage of locati- on, spirituality and music.

Like Morocco, Algeria was popular with tourists back in the 1970s, but dropped off the tourist map in 1992. A terrorist campaign was unleashed when the Islamic FIS party was prevented from taking power and banned. An estimated 100,000 people were killed between 1992 and 1999 when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected and declared an amnesty. The security situation has improved considerably and tourists have tentatively returned, predictably led by the French.

The festival's opening procession was led by Touareg camel riders carrying an Alger- ian flag through the streets, followed by musicians and dancers from scores of towns and villages across southern Algeria. The purple-clad Sebiba group from the oasis of Djanet were led by women beating drums and the veiled men jangled with silver jewellery and clashed swords.

For those seated with the Minister of Tourism on the VIP podium it was like the Sahara passing before their eyes in a striking display of costumes, music, dances... and a lot of weaponry. Showing off in front of the dignitaries, the groups did sword dances, waved rifles and blunderbusses and exuberantly let them off into the air. There was the shrieking of wooden oboes, the intricate beating of drums, a venerable old lady playing the imzad, the one-string Touareg fiddle and the regular discharging of rifles.

Clearly a lot of money and energy had been spent in getting all these groups to Tamanrasset, but it was frustrating not to hear any of them properly. They had their moment in the procession and five minutes in a concert filmed by Algerian television, but what was needed was an intimate venue where the groups could give extended performances and we could experience the music properly.

The Festival organisation was so chaotic that even if such events had been arranged, no one would have known about them. An open discussion on sustainable development in the Sahara actually took place before it was announced in the programme. There was also supposed to be a workshop about the Touareg imzad fiddle, a one-stringed instrument made from a calabash gourd covered with goat skin. The imzad is beautifully decorated with abstract designs, and said to possess supernatural powers. I spent a day trying to track down the lady from the procession - Tamanrasset's most respected imzad-player Al-Amin Kholan - to find out more.

"It's a sacred instrument," she tells me, "It's the highest ranking of the Touareg instruments and the honour of playing it is restricted to women." I ask if she thinks the instrument is in danger of disappearing. "The imzad will never disappear, it represents the identity of the Touareg and people realise this. The state is putting funds towards teaching the instrument."

Despite everyone missing the scheduled discussion, "sustainable development" has got to be the goal here - whether it's music or tourism. Though Tamanrasset itself doesn't hold any great allure, its situation in the heart of the Ahaggar mountains is remarkable. Thrusting volcano cores form jagged towers and pinnacles sprouting from the stony surface to create one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. This is spectacular camel tracking country and hidden in the mountains are rock paintings and engravings of elephants, ostriches and giraffes that date back thousands of years when the climate was clearly more benign.

One chilly evening a concert was held at the foot of one of these lava monoliths called Le Pic, and a New Year's Eve bash was organised high on the Assekrem plateau at 3000m with spectacular sunset and sunrise views over the Ahaggar mountains for those prepared for the sub-zero temperatures. People are increasingly realising that the right music in a spectacular location has a powerful allure and that music can be an integral part of travel. The sand, the stars, the intoxicating sounds of the desert. Everyone, it seems, is after a piece of the action.

Simon Broughton is the editor of 'Songlines' the world music magazine

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