‘Welcome to the middle of nowhere’

As we tumbled out of the 4×4 on to the white desert sands of Essakane, our shaky legs tried to hold us up.

Our clammy hands grasped for those of our driver, Omar, wanting to thank him for delivering us safely.

No small feat, I assure you, especially when you have been hurtling through desert scrubland at more than 80km a hour, passing broken-down transport at regular intervals and cruising over dunes to overtake more cautious drivers.

Our regular outbursts of nervous laughter had amused Omar and fellow passenger Barou no end.

But that was all behind us now — we were here; we had arrived at the world's most remote music festival.

As the festival MC would announce the following day: "Welcome to the Festival in the Desert, welcome to the middle of nowhere!"

The festival's origins lie in the traditional annual gatherings of the nomadic Tuareg tribes of the Sahara, who gather at the end of the nomadic season to trade, settle disputes and share their music and dance.

But since 2001, when the festival became principally music-oriented and opened up to the rest of Mali and the world, it has become a Mecca of sorts for world-music fans.

As far as the eye could see pristine white dunes rolled onward — it was Wednesday January 7 2009 and the festival kicked off its official programme only the following day, so besides a few Tuaregs on camels and some low-to-the-ground white tents, there was little going on.

In 2008 the festival hosted more than 10 000 people so we felt privileged to be among the first few hundred guests to arrive and watch this cultural happening take shape before our eyes.

The stage, which is one of the only permanent structures at the festival site, is a concrete block on which all the sound equipment is set up and the festival backdrop mounted.

Other than that there are two small rooms, which serve as official canteen-like restaurants, and a number of toilet structures, which are best to avoid if possible — the outer-lying dunes are a much cleaner option.

We watched as the steel structures of the stage were welded together, as the craft traders set up the market, as the restaurants set up tables and chairs in the sand and began to serve food, as makeshift bars began to sell cold beer, Cokes and water.

For the next three days this mini economy would be in full swing.

By Wednesday evening the festival was heaving, as impromptu Tuareg jam sessions erupted around campfires and we trawled across the dunes looking for makeshift food stalls and bars stocking ice-cold beer.

We soon figured out that the key to the Festival in the Desert is to keep moving, because there is bound to be something interesting happening just over the next dune — quite appropriate for a festival run by nomads.

So we stumbled along from impromptu traditional music jam sessions to animal slaughterings, from Malian hip-hop parties sponsored by Unicef to performances by a 20-piece French Afrobeat band, all the while taking in the sights and the sounds of the beautiful gathering.

Although the festival boasts the big names of Malian music every year — Salif Keita, Afel Bocoum, Bassekou Kouyate, Habib Koite and Vieux Farka Toure were just some of the names on the 2009 bill — it was the smaller impromptu performances that we stumbled on that made the festival truly special.

The opportunity to sit in a tent with five other people watching a Tuareg guitarist by the name of Ibrahim Djoe play music with a British journalist on harmonica and a French festival volunteer on guitar is a memory we will never forget.

When it came to the official music programme, it was often the lesser-known artists who made a big impact.

We rocked out to the great American blues-infused sounds of Baba Djire and danced to the Tuareg desert rock of Imarhane, who proved that Tinariwen is not the only musical export this region has to offer.

Then there were all the guest acts from Africa — Koudede, a Niger-based Tuareg rock group that had the crowd in fits of rapture, especially when they were joined by Abdallah Ag Alhousenyni from Tinariwen on stage, Mana Mint Chighaly, the large Mauritanian guitarist who bashed out killer riffs while a cigarette dangled precariously from his lips, or the beautiful lilting voice of Mario Lucio from the Cape Verde islands.

The festival is a musical smorgasbord for the world-music fan and one that will be etched into your brain for the rest of your life.

But it is so much more than just a music festival. When we took the time to stop and observe this magnificent Tuareg cultural gathering playing out around us, we began to realise the importance of get-togethers such as this for the Tuareg people, whether they be the musicians wanting to share their music, young Tuareg adolescents flirting with the opposite sex or Tuareg families selling their craft to earn their income for the rest of the year.

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