Mali cancels return of famous music festival after al-Qaida attack
The fabled Festival au Désert was returning to Timbuktu, but it was a carefully guarded secret.
Musicians had packed their instruments for the journey to northern . Technical teams had already loaded their sound systems into canoes and taken the river route to the ancient city of learning. None of the festival-going public had yet been told, but the organisers were confident they would turn out, possibly in their thousands.
It was a secret because it was a potential target for extremists in Mali’s lawless north. Since 2012, the world-famous festival, which attracted Malian nomads and music fans from all over the world, has been in exile, driven from its home in the first place by Islamic extremists who banned music, and kept out ever since by insecurity.
But this weekend was to mark its triumphant return, and a huge amount of effort had gone into organising it.
When militants took over northern Mali in 2012, they applied Sharia law. Women were whipped for wearing clothes deemed indecent, and thieves had their hands cut off. But the militants also in a culture where griots, praise-singers and story-tellers are of great importance, and where music is considered the lifeblood of society.
Though the militants were driven out by a French-led force nine months after they took over, peace talks have been halting and have resulted in little success.
Two weeks ago, however, suicide bombers , killing at least 77 people and wounding more than 100 others. The president announced three days of mourning after the worst attack Mali has seen for several years.
in the Islamic Maghreb claimed the attack. Three people have been arrested in connection, according to the Malian minister of security.
The organisers of the Festival in the Desert immediately held meetings to decide what to do, but decided to go ahead with it.
“It really was a dilemma. Everyone was on the road, we were ready to go – to brave the risk,” director Manny Ansar said.
“The festival left Timbuktu because music was forbidden. It was very important for everyone that it should go back,” Ansar said. “All the artists I contacted wanted to go. It was the message that was important.”
However, at the last minute, Malian officials blocked it.
A music producer who has organised concerts all over Mali in spite of security concerns said that the festival in the desert was about far more than just the music – it was about bringing people together, and reconciling past grievances if need be.
“It wasn’t like going to a concert,” Paul Chandler said. “It became a community for that time. A really open community, and a chance to meet people who were really different from you, and find out that they’re not that different after all. The music was just part of it. The community was the main thing.”
Asking for forgiveness is an important part of Malian culture, he added, a trait that was evident most recently in the groundbreaking trial of one of Timbuktu’s residents who stood trial for war crimes in The Hague, after he broke down ancient tombs and destroyed a mosque door.
Before Ahmad al-Mahdi was sentenced to nine years in jail in September after pleading guilty to destroying cultural monuments in Timbuktu, he for his actions, asking the city’s residents for forgiveness.
Cynthia Schneider, an American professor and retired diplomat and one of the people behind , had just landed in Bamako, ready to make the journey north, when she heard the festival had been cancelled. It was a blow.
“It is tremendously important for the people of Timbuktu, who feel isolated and abandoned. They’ve received many delegations of people saying they’re going to help Timbuktu. Things have happened, but the town has lost its major source of income – tourism – and very little has been done to help that. The festival has such incredible significance for the town, economically but also just as a way for the population to come together and celebrate the rejuvenation of Timbuktu.”
Previous performers at the festival have included Tinariwen, Bombino, Oumou Sangaré and a tribute to Ali Farka Touré featuring Toumani Diabaté, Afel Bocoum and Bassekou Kouyate.
Ansar vowed that it would go ahead, if not next year, then “soon”, though because of the changing situation, it was impossible to say when.
“If we give up, we give victory to the extremists,” Ansar said.
“It’s just a bump in the road. We’re committed to seeing this thing through,” Chandler added.