Robert Plant: Desert storm

Robert Plant took the hippie route to Essakane, in the Malian Sahara, to play at the world's most remote music festival. The singer tells Tim Cumming why he was blown away
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The bucolic setting of Mount Ephraim Gardens, in Kent, where Robert Plant and his band Strange Sensation delivered a superlative set last week at Canterbury Fayre, is unquestionably a long way from Essakane. But then, if you wanted to give a map reference to the term "middle of nowhere", then the Saharan oasis of Essakane, about 65km from Timbuktu, would be a good place to start. Earlier this year, Essakane's desert calm exploded with the arrival of a 5,000-strong audience for the third Festival in the Desert, surely the most remote and extraordinary musical gathering on earth.

There is no road from Timbuktu, four hours' drive away and long held as the international standard in remoteness. The majority arrived as they do everywhere in the desert - by camel, or packed like sardines on the back of trucks. Plant was one of only a handful of Western artists to appear, as is documented on a dazzling CD of the best performances from Essakane, released next week.

Plant was surely embarking on one of the stranger trips in his lifetime, and took the guitarists Justin Adams and Skin via a more time-honoured hippie route. "We hitched," he remembers, with a grin. "We hitched a ride with the Christian Brothers. Jesus took us there." With a little help from an even higher authority, as Plant explains, in the shape of the BBC's Newsround. "They've got a plane that goes from Bamako, the capital of Mali, and they said, 'If you pay your part of the fare, you can come.' And we did. It was a cash deal, but they ripped us off. We didn't get the return trip."

With an international contingent including Plant, the French band Lo'Jo and the Navajo punk band Blackfire alongside Malian blues legends such as Ali Farka Touré, the singer Oumou Sangare and the extraordinary Tuareg guitar band Tinariwen, it has already been described as one of the best live albums ever released.

While Mali has been the focus of international attention since Ry Cooder's collaboration with Touré on Talking Timbuktu, the music of the Tuareg is less well known. But as the festival was essentially a Tuareg gathering, their lean, bone-shaking blues could soon be in vogue far beyond the desert sands. It has been a long time coming. Malian independence and the enforced boundaries of the modern nation state dealt severe blows to the Tuareg's culture and way of life. For decades they conducted low-level warfare against the government to win back their rights and assert their nomadic culture. Only in 1996 was a ceasefire declared and thousands of weapons destroyed in a symbolic conflagration of enmities between the myriad ethnic groups.

"The Festival in the Desert was a way to put people together after the civil war ended in 1996," says Denis Pean, singer and lyricist of the French band Lo'Jo, whose mix of world music, Brechtian cabaret, chanson and political utopianism has made them festival favourites across Europe. They and their manager, Philippe Brix, were instrumental in making the dream of a festival in the desert a reality.

It opened in January 2001 with a set by Tinariwen and a total eclipse of the moon. The following year's gathering was marred by severe sandstorms, but this year's was the biggest gathering so far. "There were 30 bands and more than 200 Europeans," says Pean. "In 2001 there were less than 20."

Plant's guitarist and Lo'Jo's producer, Justin Adams, was one of those original 20. "Guerrilla warfare was still going on," he recalls, "and we were right in the middle of it." They were near the remote desert town of Kidal, where the 1990 Tuareg rebellion began with the seizure of an army garrison and its armoury. Though fighting had officially ended, the area was - and still is - dangerous to enter. On the way to Kidal in 2001, the truck convoy carrying the PA was hijacked by bandits armed with Kalashnikovs. Only the presence of Kheddou, one of Tinariwen's guitarists and the man who had led that 1990 uprising in Kidal, ensured the convoy's passage to the site.

So, when Adams began working with Plant soon afterwards, and Plant asked what he'd been doing, they soon found they had things to talk about. Plant has been a serious collector of music from both sides of the Atlas Mountains for decades. His 1994 recordings with Jimmy Page on No Quarter featured powerful collaborations with Moroccan and Egyptian musicians, and in March 1972, he and Page played with an Indian classical orchestra in Bombay, during a month of experimental sessions. Plant knew what he was talking about. "When I heard about what Justin was doing, I said, 'Please can I come?'

"In 1972," he continues, "I took Jimmy Page to this part of Morocco called the sub-Sahara, between the Atlas Mountains and what was once called the Spanish sub-Sahara." Like Essakine and Kidal, it was an area rife with conflict. "The Polisario guerrillas were very active, and there were huge problems down there." But there was also great music. "When you go into the marketplace in the Atlas Mountains and you start buying cassettes, you start listening to the lone voice, the one bandir and violin. The Berbers and hill tribes - what was left of the tribes of the Lords of the Atlas - were making this music that was eternal. It's music based on the calendar of the year and all the things to celebrate, from circumcisions to a good or bad crop. Page and I took a tape machine, and I took him down to Taroudant and to the south towards Ouarzazate and Zegora, recording people on our way. While at the same time still being Led Zeppelin."

Plant's set at Essakane went down a storm with the largely Tuareg audience, with Zep classics such as "Whole Lotta Love" alongside radical reworkings of "Girl from the North Country", and a consummate exploration of Memphis rather than Malian blues on "Win My Train Fare Home". As for his own favourites, he points firmly to the deep, edgy, elemental guitar sound of Tinariwen, "the pride of the Sahara" and lifelong political rebels with the scars to prove it. Formed in Libyan refugee camps in 1982, they are famous throughout the region as both musicians and fighters. Justin Adams produced Tinariwen's Radio Tisdas Sessions for his own label Wayward a couple of years ago. "It was an extraordinary experience," he remembers. "When I first heard them, I felt, this was the music I'd been looking for all my life."

For years during the guerrilla wars, he tells me, Tinariwen's working-methods were as stripped down as their music. "They'd just sit in a room with a ghetto blaster, press 'Record' and play. And if they stopped and talked between songs, then that was what went out on cassette." Clothed and veiled in traditional Tuareg dress, the group embody the heavy gang spirit of defiance and misrule that countless rock bands, including Led Zeppelin, have sought to evoke. "The Tuareg are incredible posers," Adams says. "They really know how to strike a pose on a camel. Because they're veiled, that's how they recognise each other: by the pose they strike."

The CD's illustrated booklet reveals what an extraordinary festival it was on just about every level, but for Plant, some of the strongest memories were of the impromptu sessions off stage. "There was a wonderful evening with Ali Farka Touré. We created a fire and sat around it, and Justin played guitar, Ali sang and I was singing, and it was probably better than anything that could be staged."

But Plant also fears that the festival could simply become coffee-table exotica for an acquisitive Western audience. "Going there, I did feel I was compromising myself a bit, because, in truth, I really didn't have anything to add," he says, discomforted by a sense of trespass. "It was an amazing experience, but I don't think we can add to what they are doing. In fact, the only thing we can do is take away the great parts - just like we did with Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf - and bring it into the mainstream of what we do."

Yet the music is there, and for Plant, it is the music that remains long after the festival tents are packed and carried away and Essakane returns to its oasis calm - until next January. "All you've got to do is listen to the CD and people such as Tidawt and Tinariwen, and you're there," he tells me, adding, "All the talking in the world isn't going to get you anywhere near the smell of that thing. That's the sound of the beginning of all life. The first time people made a noise together, it must've sounded like that."

'Festival in the Desert' is released on 8 September on Wayward/IRL. Tinariwen's 'Radio Tisdas Sessions' is available on Wayward

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