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The desert festival on the run from Sharia law

NORTHERN MALI: When the astoundingly culturally fertile northern deserts were taken over by music-banning Islamists, the region's festival had to move

“We don’t want the music of Satan. Qur’anic verses must take its place”, declared the vengeful new arrivals. It was August of last year and the vast plains of the northern Sahara, home to some of the finest sounds to come out of Africa had, out of the blue, been seized by an army of armed Islamists and locked under a strict code of Sharia law. Over night, towns Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu which make up the northern stretch of Mali saw Instruments burnt in the street, musicians exiled, nightclubs and radios destroyed. These extremists were leaving no stone left unturned. Even mobile ring tones were replaced with Qu’ranic prayer. Cutting off hands and flogging in the street for anyone who disobeyed, the message that music was now dead was chillingly clear. The rich legacy of music, born out of this newly seized land, was set to face an apocalypse that no one could of forecasted.

The stinging irony of this musical oblivion is how well Mali is known throughout the world for its music. Western musicians, throughout history, have fallen in love and taken huge inspiration with the way music is given it’s freedom, time to experiment and time to breathe. Coined “the DNA of blues”, by Martin Scorcese, ranked as one of the best guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone, the late, great, Ali Farka Toure’s inventive mixings of Indigenous African rhythms set to blues guitar, birthed the Sahara’s trademark, Dessert blues. Now it’s Grammy winning band Tinariwen, made up of Tuareg rebels, who live and record albums in the vast Saharan plains, that are holding the torch for a country famed for its complex rhythms and depth of sound. A band that have had TV On The Radio journey to the desert desperate to collaborate with them, layer their own native brand of blues, Assouf, with hypnotic riffs and political lyrics cite comparisons of “a cross between Fela Kuti and Velvet Underground”.

There is an instinctive link between Malian land and its musicians which makes this music blackout such a bitter blow for its civilians. This deep connection comes fully alive in Mali’s best kept secret - Festival Au Desert. A musical pilgrimage of sorts, sees neighbouring nomads, Tuaregs, adventurous westerners travel to the deep outskirts of Timbuktu to kiss goodbye to electricity and bathe under a sea of stars, surrendering to the rich music of the region. “Everything comes together as energy” describes Tinariwen bassist, Ayedou, as musicians improvise into the night within the deep and dark silence of the empty lands. The festival, like many Malian musicians right now, will carry on in exile, finding another location which lacks the affinity of the land and its music.

What the extremists were unaware, of course, was the powerful force they were reckoning with. The months that followed the ban on music, before France intervened with paratroopers directing the eyes of global politics on Mali, musicians from the region were using their craft to tell the world of the atrocities their towns were facing. Grammy nominated and renowned Malian musician, Bassekou Kouyate made his feelings clear at Barbican event Sahara Soul, declaring after each song, “we don’t want Al Qaida!" Glastonbury recently announced a whole host of Malian musicians to its bill to highlight the ban, Tinariwen have been booked for All Tomorrows Parties. Malian music has shown itself to be a powerful vehicle to connect the world to horrors they are facing, sending a clear message to the extremists that Malian music will not be suppressed. The global voice Malian music has cemented through time could be their best weapon of all.

The Festival Au Desert takes place in Burkina Faso this weekend. Rachel Ridge has produced a documentary on the area and Tinarwen's music, which will launch online next week