feature | Hugo Race

spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008



Hugo Race plays the Festival au Desert

We’re in the backroom of the Djembe Bar, Bamako, Mali, over on the northern edge of town where the streetlights thin out and the shadows gather. A hip young audience hangs out here, tuned into the hard-edged urban sounds of extended jam sessions with rock instrumentation, based on complex Malian syncopations. Relentless drum and bass dance beats laced with African electric guitar: soulful, electrified. The vocalists come and go, singing the praises of the big shots and beauties in the room, angling for a cadeau or reward in return.

These songs are delivered with murderous attitude through a PA system cranked deep into the distortion zone, and I’m digging it big-time. Tomorrow we’re flying out of Mali, but for now the night’s running hot. The club promoter, figuring we were passing through from the Festival au Desert, has asked me in the French lingua franca if we’re a band.

Well, as a matter of fact …

The African musicians hand us their instruments with curious smiles – Chris Brokaw, the drum kit with its loose hardware and cymbals; Chris Eckman, the subsonic bass; me, a local Fender Strat copy, with the MC, wearing a jungle suit and a quizzical expression, holding the single battered microphone so I can sing into it, for there are no mic stands in this place. We segue from our ‘Still Running’ into a slow African blues and Brokaw switches to double time to keep the vibe up. The MC and I exchange looks and he takes the mic, singing in Bambara, the beginning of each syllable delivered like an icepick to the heart. Tall, thin men in sharp suits and women with beehives are chilling out on couches in the smoky air.

Our band is Dirtmusic, and this is where we belong.

Chris Eckman raised the dream of going to Mali while we were touring in central Europe. Later, he made it happen.

We arrive separately from Warsaw, New York and Melbourne and meet up in the transit lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport with our guitars and yellow fever certificates.

A mixed bag of African businessmen and European tourists and adventurers board the packed Air France flight to Bamako. I sit with a posse of middle-aged Spaniards heading off for an African safari, their stained denims, brandy breath and drooping moustaches vibing postcolonial decadence. A Raj-era Englishman has swapped seats with me so he can sit with his wife. She glances at my copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and turns to her partner.

‘Well, look,’ she says, ‘he’s reading On the Road – you read that once too, didn’t you, dear? Years ago?’

This is the only incoming flight tonight at Bamako airport and beyond the perimeter a gentle chaos mills around under huge palm trees. Masses of luggage are thrown higgledy-piggledy onto a rubber belt and X-rayed by a security guard, whose intermittent gaze is unlikely to unscramble the images seething across his screen. Two elderly porters pull my luggage and guitar away in the general melee of the arrivals hall, and I hang on akimbo lest the bags disappear into scenery.

In the end, it’s two teenagers – ‘Boss, donne-moi une travaille!‘ – who stake their claim as we exit into the roiling humidity of a parking lot where four-wheel drives and taxis mill around in the dim chaos of bodies, vehicles and bags.

We climb into a LandCruiser and drive through the Bamako sprawl. Few Western-style big city lights here. The tallest building is a Sofitel installed in a Stalinist cement high-rise, harking back to Africa’s ties with the Eastern bloc before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The pensione is on a flat red dirt road. Huge trees tower overhead, waxy-leaved and succulent: palms, eucalypts. You sense the equator is near. The clustered minarets of a mosque watch over a vacant lot the size of a stadium; shanties proliferate across the packed-dirt terrain between hairdressing kiosks; fruit stalls and wrecked automobiles stacked in sculptures of rusted iron. A galaxy of smells – spiced meat cooking on roadside grills, mixed-fuel exhausts, open drains and the pervasive smell of burning African grass, part perfume, part mosquito repellent and part narcotic.

On the nearby strip of bars and clubs, bootied-up girls and sharp-dressed guys throw back cocktails before bundling into taxis for clubs and parties unknown. The night is hot and young, and I haven’t yet got a clear idea of what this vast alien city is about, although one thing rapidly becomes clearer as the night goes on: if Bamako ever sleeps, it’s only for a brief catnap between four and five in the morning. Families sit outside dim cement-box homes around a television, a Peugeot crawls by, raising clouds of dust, a stray dog takes a dump in a puddle and the mosquitoes are zeroing in on my body heat. The dark is deep here after sundown; it’s too easy to get lost. I head back to the pensione and crawl under the mosquito net, but sound floods the room from several directions: the distant thud of street djembes, the saccharine soul of Lionel Richie from the karaoke club across the way and the orgiastic guitar solos of Santana from the bar below.

A delirium later, I’m packing my bags for the trip to Essakane. The call to prayer rises like an air-raid siren from the neighbourhood mosque and the last taxis roll down Rue 254 in the temporary calm before Bamako reanimates at first light.

Dawn is breaking over the serpentine oscillations of the Niger River, flashing off the surface in dazzling shards of raw light. We’re cruising overhead in a Mali Air DC10 and the terrain recalls the moon’s magnetic fields or the saltpan country of the Australian dead heart. The massive river cuts a winding circuit of oxbows and alluvial islands around the southern edge of the Sahara desert, bringing the water of life to the many peoples scattered throughout the interior. It also signifies the last frontier before the high-alert terrorist zone into which Western governments strongly recommend their citizens refrain from travelling.

That is why the Festival au Desert is located out here. The dunes and scrub beyond the Niger were, through the 1990s, the frontline of a guerrilla civil war in one of the poorest countries in the world, fought between nomadic Tuareg desert tribes and the Mali government. The Festival au Desert was created as a meeting point for Tuareg people dispersed by war and by the confiscation of nomad lands into the camps along the Malian border, particularly in Mauritania and Algeria. It symbolises peace, unity and regeneration after crisis – a meeting of the tribes.

The desert beyond the oasis of this festival is, however, still volatile. East, across the border with Niger, French and multinational corporations are mining uranium. Even further east lies the Sudan and the ongoing tragedy in Darfur. In neighbouring Mauritania, the Lisbon-Dakar stockcar rally has this week been cancelled because of four French tourists executed by Islamofascists, and the shooting of three soldiers investigating three days later, while two French journalists are currently remanded in Niger after reporting abuses of the population and the environment in the mining zones operated by the Areva corporation.

On the ground at Timboctou, we negotiate the chaos of the arrivals hall as local guides search for their tour parties, and taxi drivers, their unmarked four-wheel drives parked outside with engines running, hustle for clients. I’d heard rumours of unlucky Europeans bailed up by their drivers in the wild dune country beyond Timboctou but we’re fortunate enough to meet Many Ansar, the charismatic festival director. He soon has us in the back of a four-wheel drive, with a member of the Malian musical collective Tartit riding shotgun in coloured robes and designer sunglasses.

In the arid, medieval desert city of Timboctou, bizarre columns and facades are silhouetted against the whitening sky, and women and children sell dried banana skins and fish scales on the shoulder of the packed-dirt road. A skinned pig drains from a meat-hook near the facade of an evangelist church mission, reminder of a not so distant past in which missionaries, slavers and mining companies ‘explored’ Africa and sent back home the wealth of millennia.

At the single red light we encounter traversing the city, an ancient woman extends one withered hand for foreign alms, her face cast in shadow by a veil.

Past graffitied mud brick walls and prehistoric mining derricks, onto a kind of gravel highway, red dirt spraying out from under the wheels. The vegetation is thinning out as our driver turns off at a hand-drawn sign reading ‘Essakane’. Tyre tracks lead away into the rough terrain and several other LandCruisers are nearby – it appears we’re forming a convoy for some cross-country scrambling.

Brokaw is talking to a mature-age American couple and the woman says, ‘Oh, you guys are a band? Maybe you heard of my son’s band – they’re called the Dandy Warhols?’

The temperature’s high by the time we enter the Saharan dune country for real. We’re fishtailing all over the place on the loose white sand, and nearly sideswipe several trees as our driver whips the steering wheel to stop the Toyota from rolling – a prospect I don’t want to consider, with our gear loosely strapped onto the utility tray. The trail has deteriorated to nothing, we’re idling in deep nowhere and the driver appears lost in thought. But our guide from Tartit has an intuitive sense of direction and she steers us around through the fields of sand right up to the stone gates that command the entrance to the site.

The Festival au Desert spreads out across the dunes in a labyrinth of white tents, distant stage scaffolding silhouetted against a cobalt-blue Saharan sky. Continuing on foot, we meet the friendly French-speaking organisational crew and, after signing in and collecting our security passes, we relocate our vehicle and driver – bogged in loose sand a half kilometre away. The dry heat has risen to around 30 degrees by now and, as we carry our personal load of 40 kilos each across the waves of soft, fine sand, it begins to cook our brains. A young African in robes standing on an elevation a few metres away asks: ‘Puis vous aider?

My response is automatic. ‘Mais oui!

Our helper summons a few friends out of nowhere and we’re a team lugging under the noonday sun. The guy turns back and looks at Brokaw who’s hampered by guitars, then yells out in perfect English: ‘Hey you, hurry up!’

We find ourselves billeted facing the tent of a young Tuareg band called Tamikrest. There’s a US Vogue photoshoot taking place, using the extended Tamikrest tribe as a picturesque backdrop (and musical soundtrack) for a lithe American model clad in poverty chic. The Vogue team sets up and breaks down with lightning speed but the ten or twelve guys and girls of the Tamikrest group seem indifferent, with nomad desert cool.

I’m talking with some of the Tamikrest crew from their hometown of Kidal about a djembe player to guest with Dirtmusic tomorrow night. These managerial cats are organised and come prepared with business cards and, even despite my rusted French, we’re figuring stuff out at speed.

Brokaw grabs the dobro and wanders over to play cross-legged in the sand. All around there’s a sense of movement, expansion, as several thousand people converge on the campsite and the sun rapidly sinks behind a sine-wave horizon. Something’s going to happen here now.

Vieux Farka Touré, the son of Ali, is one of tonight’s big-name acts. I walk with Baba, the band’s djembe player, who introduces me to the spread of the Festival au Desert after dark. We drift past the inner core of kiosks and administrative and artists’ tents and across the sands: people talking around campfires, conversations floating in the dark in African, French and English, as well as Spanish, Italian, German and more. All around the tourist camps, the Tuaregs are riding in out of the desert on their rangy camels in groups of two or three, draped in robes and turbans with only their eyes showing and long, curved swords hanging by their sides.

The Tuareg camps spill further out across the wilderness of Essakane – women swathed in black robes, roaming children, woodfires, goats, tethered camels, a profusion of cooking smells. Above the scattered trees, the stars begin to appear in a quantity I haven’t seen since the electrosmog-free Australian interior – but with the equatorial African sky displaying the constellations in a different orientation. Orion is high over the dunes and, on its heels Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest in the sky, described thousands of years ago by the Malian Dogon people as a twin-sun solar system – a fact only recently confirmed by Western science’s high-powered astronomical observatories. Accurate Dogon knowledge of the galaxy actually extends much further than this and in tribal performance Dogon drummers beat on spherical calabashes with metallic fingers, gyrate and somersault masked in orbital dances to the rhythm of abstract mathematics. It gets me thinking about the origins of homo sapiens in east Africa, not so far from here. We’re near the source, and these are the stars they saw back in the beginning of human time – year zero …

I’m sitting near a fire when a Tuareg guy in his robes and sword sits down and strikes up a conversation. He says he’s from a far-away town; I ask where, and he points over the dunes.

‘How do you navigate in the desert?’

Les étoiles.’ He gestures at the stars then says, in English this time, ‘The seven sisters,’ pointing at the Pleiades.

I try to explain how in Australia the constellations are inverted, and he shakes his head and laughs and offers me a cigarette.

Several thousand people have gathered at the main stage. The temperature rapidly drops, and they pull on coats, scarves and headwear against the cold. A thin wedge of waxing crescent moon hangs low over the dunes, the full lunar orb silhouetted by an astral halo.

The sound in front of the speaker stacks is a little confused but, as you wander the sandbowl amphitheatre, it morphs and mutates. Eventually I find a sonic sweet-spot high on the rear sand dune about 700 metres from the stage. The view is great, too, even if the cold gets into your bones after midnight. Vendors stroll through the crowd carrying trays of thick, sweet Tuareg tea and selling Dunhill Reds, bottles of warm beer and soft drinks. The communal feeling is warm and high even during the early evening’s European acts. By the time the Africans take the stage the mood is electric.

Tamikrest, transformed under lights by their traditional Tuareg robes and turbans, lay down a set of amplified desert chants and drones that resonates off the cooling sands. You wouldn’t know their average age is around twenty. The regal Noura Mint Seymali fronts a traditional Mauritanian band in her robes and tiara; the long hypnotic tracks shifting tapestries for her extraordinary voice, as if Bessie Smith fronted a North African funk orchestra. Vieux Farka Touré et les amis d’Ali are road-honed sharp, executing a funk’n’roll of such power and precision it makes you reconsider what it means to be musically tight. The fact that Vieux is the son of Ali, and carrying on the tradition of Mali desert blues, assures him a spectacular reception from the crowd here at a festival closely identified with his legendary father.

The early start and long journey from Bamako, the desert’s crushing heat and the night’s clean chill, the excitement of these astonishing sights and sounds has worn me out: I hit the sack back in the Dirtmusic tent and drift away listening to the pounding of distant djembes and the oceanic hiss of campfire voices.

With our soundcheck set for noon, Arhali wants to start early and is ready with his djembe before I even have coffee. At the nomad kiosk over the way, beyond the cruising four-wheel drives and processions of mounted camels crisscrossing the sand, is a table and plastic chairs under an awning where the crew gathers to eat and drink. Opposite, a stringer from the New York Times is texting his story on a palm computer; behind me, Europeans talk currency exchange rates, schedules, battery rechargers. Kids drift by selling jewellery and cast-iron Dogon gods, making casual offers of Ghana grass and henna tattoos and postcards.

Back in the Tamikrest tent, we’re seven or eight musicians spread across mattresses or plain white sand. Unsurprisingly, Arhali is an incredible percussionist and we sort seven or eight Dirtmusic songs before heading over to the mainstage soundcheck where a French production manager sweats into his cellphone, saying the generator’s run out of diesel. We sit around and run through more songs in a cave-like stone room, passing time and fine-tuning beats. It soon transpires that the soundcheck is cancelled – too many technical hitches, too many musicians.

I wander back through the camp and a turbaned musician sitting in a tent with an ngoni (a kind of versatile African lute) on his knee beckons me inside. It is the tent of Super Khoumaissa and out of it, earlier this morning, emanated some of the wickedest oil-smoke African blues I’d ever heard, an electric scimitar of sound, distorted to the max: fierce stuff. He has a gleam in his eye; he indicates a mattress next to him. Kicking off my boots I sit cross-legged and open-tune my guitar. Around us are four or five older men dozing in the noonday funk. I follow his patterns with ears and eyes, and soon we’re riffing clean circular loops, traditional desert tunes.

The ngoni player has a very intense stare, hard to hold. He smiles, I talk my broken French, he replies with an impenetrable accent. Somehow we communicate; mostly we just play.

Then silence falls and a distinguished looking guy sits up and asks me some questions about who I am. I do my best to answer. I ask him if he’s playing tonight and he says, no. Rather, he’s the president of a commission for disarmament, the surrendering of firearms in Mali and in the Sahara wherever the Tuareg lands extend. The profusion of weapons is very difficult to control, he says; it’s hard to win the agreement of the different peoples, and he’s here to conduct a seminar seeking conciliation. I ask him about the extent of the problem, and he stretches out his hands and looks around from side to side 180 degrees.

Grabbing a plate of couscous and intestine from the kiosk, I ease on back to the Tamikrest tent. An older Songhai guy drifts over and picks up Eckman’s acoustic guitar and plays forty-five seconds of real Delta blues like the Afro avatar of Lightnin’ Hopkins. It’s frightening how real this is. Pretty quickly the group grows to maybe twelve or so musicians. I hit ‘record’ on the cassette portable and everybody’s cool with that, which is great because the tapes will prove amazing after digital editing (they become the so-called ‘Tent Sessions’).

During the course of that scalding afternoon, we play something like twenty-five songs, several of them ours, in various configurations: usually a couple of acoustic guitars, some unplugged electrics, two djembes, handclapping and, of course, everybody vocalising, including the two Tamikrest women whose ululatory cries make the hair rise on the nape of your neck. There’s a lot of discovery going on here and the excitement is palpable. A shifting crowd surrounds the tent entrance, with videoists and microphones and musicians like Mary-Anne, a violinist from Lawrence, Kansas, who we will later invite to play on the show that night making us five in performance. But by the afternoon our instruments and feet are dusted in sand and desert burrs, our hands and throats raw, our cassette tapes all used up with batteries flat.

After dark, with a gentle wind blowing in, we set up on the main stage with fifteen minutes to line-check. The audience is already more than a thousand strong, most of them covered in robes and turbans, sitting on the bone-white dunes. There’s silhouettes of camels on the ridges. The onstage sound is tricky with rickety old transistor amps, and the microphone is giving shocks to my lips but there’s nothing to be done, given the miracle of electricity being delivered here at all. The French stage mixer is doing his best to bring it all together – he spreads his hands and shrugs.

Okay, I’m going to keep my distance.

The festival MC hands us the spotlight. We take a breath, find a groove and go for it. In performance, you enter into the moment and, if you can, you surrender to it completely.

Dirtmusic is appointed thirty-five minutes tonight. After we’ve finished the reaction is somehow ecstatic – and it seems to me it’s not just about playing music, but about playing it here, in this place, and what that means to people.

The MC is a very cool presenter and, amongst many pointed statements, he says: ‘So the world, when they think of us, think of Timboctou as a mythical city from centuries ago, from back in time, an old legend. But we are here to say that Timboctou is right here, right now, and that people here deserve the same level of education and opportunity as anywhere. Timboctou was created in the eleventh century; it’s now the twenty-first …’

It’s Saturday midday and we’re walking back from Essakane. This incredibly loud reggae music is coming from nowhere as if there were giant speakers in the heavens pointed down on Mali. In reality, it’s the soundcheck of Tiken Jah Faholy, and the fat Ivory Coast bass riffs are bouncing around off the dunes like giant rubber balls. I realise then you can hear the festival music from kilometres away, even from Essakane village: brick houses and scattered trees, goatherds, a faux-Mexican arched stable inhabited by a tribe of donkeys, scattered dry camel turds, some white-collared blackbirds over the fields, people dotted across the plateau collecting wood.

A family – the nine-year-old home from school kicking a plastic bottle around in the dust, the mother and sisters coming back for lunch, the father walking home with a rifle rested on his shoulder. I ask the boy what his dad is hunting and he says, ‘lapins, rabbits …’

Visiting the festival is allowed but he has to be home by the 1 am curfew. So how does he tell the time?

He glances briefly at the sky and smiles. This desert is his home; the sun and stars strike the hours.

In the same way, it’s impossible to be alone here. Sooner or later, somebody will appear. I walk out beyond the festival camp, beyond the camels and tents and fields of men observing Mecca, until there is nobody in sight and sit down under a shade tree. After ten minutes or so, two figures appear on the horizon coming from different directions on tangents that both converged on me. The two naturally shout out as they pass, ‘Ça va?

Now that’s solidarity.

I’m washing from a canteen hanging off a tent support. Distant djembes fill the air, the bray of a moody camel, handclapping. A group of African musicians move across the campsite accompanied by a distorted electric ngoni loop coming from an invisible source, like a beatbox concealed beneath their robes. A Tuareg traditional ceremony set up in the dunes beyond the main stage draws spectators around a huge rectangular red carpet. On one side are seated ngoni players, fifteen or more. In front of them, the women in their shiny maroon black shawls clap and chant.

The music is … well, trance geometry.

Tuaregs ride tall on decorated camels; the camels walk through the crowd and onto the carpet. The riders press their heels into the camel’s necks forcing them to kneel. Men enter and leave the carpet, telling stories by movement. Every now and then the generator cuts out but the rhythm continues.

Tonight we’re joining Tamikrest on stage for their second performance at the festival. We’re primed after more tent sessions but there’s not enough amps and I’m going direct with the Epiphone, so the situation is challenging – there’s maybe nine of us onstage, five guitars, violin, djembe, electric bass, two MCs with swords and the two Tuareg backing singers. The line-check is messy with so many players onstage but the turbaned audience spilling out into the unlit dunes is getting restless. We start with a Tamikrest song and it feels good, but the sound is deeply weird onstage.

We all just look at each other and smile – what can you do?

Then it’s Eckman’s ‘The Other Side’ and all eleven lock onto the beat, unable to sense where these unearthly harmonies are coming from. Again, the feedback from the audience is charged positive.

But the polyphonic tsunami we heard onstage?

Later, Brokaw explains as we sit down to eat, ‘Well, Ornette Coleman gave us twelve tones to set us free …’

Behind him, moving across the carpeted sand of the VIP tent, is a kid in rough safari gear, with an AK-47 strapped to his back. Some other guys appear out of the shadows and they usher him away from the lights, talking quietly. It’s easy to forget the camp is armed because the music is so embracing: amazing sounds all through the night. Bassekou Kouyate is both scathing and majestic, the most unbelievable guitar playing I have ever heard – except that Bassekou is playing an electric ngoni, with two tenor or bass ngoni players as backup, and a singer with an incredible bittersweet voice, like Billie Holiday meeting Betty Boop. Milling percussionists; beautiful turmoil.

Near the end of Saturday night the crowd is just beginning to thin. Dogons in tall, eerie masks have climbed onto the stage roof as if watching the action from the sky. The silver-tongued MC thanks everybody who made the festival possible: all who cooked or organised, the indigenous Tuareg hosts, the artists and, of course, the audience for actually making it out there in a tribute to peace and cooperation. Then he thanks the security for their discretion at the camps and for the armed perimeter they maintain around the site to a circumference of roughly 60 kilometres, making us remember how vulnerable our location is.

We’ve only briefly been guests of this remote oasis and, after the circus has gone, there’ll be just dust and sand and echoes left behind. It’s an early rise Sunday morning leaving camp. A burgundy dawn breaks over the dunes and we score a ride for Timboctou, following the clouds of thick red dust raised by the rest of the departing convoy.

Hugo Race is a performer, writer, musician and producer. His thirteenth solo album 53rd State was released in April. He created the group Dirtmusic with musicians Chris Eckman (Seattle) and Chris Brokaw (New York City).
© Hugo Race
Overland 192 – spring 2008, pp. 5-11

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