Putting on a concert in the middle of the desert seems an impossible undertaking. The heat, the sand, the lack of roads ... it's nearly a fool's errand in this day and age of sensitive electronic equipment and corporate-controlled concert halls. However, the nomadic Touareg people of Mali have transformed the we've-found-water party they've celebrated for years into something both culturally important and financially rewarding; for the past four years, with the assistance of international promoters and various culture committees, the remote oasis of Essakane (north of Timbuktu, which puts it precisely in the middle of nowhere) has been host to the singular and highly successful "Festival in the Desert."
To say there's nothing else like the Festival would be an understatement. Meant to forge cultural and trade ties between the Touareg and the rest of Mali, the event has blossomed into a sort of ultimate traveler's destination: There are no hotels anywhere, there are loads of camels, there's sand blowing around …. Oh yeah, and there's also a gigantic, well-lit stage right in the middle of the desert on which all sorts of musicians perform. The recently released Festival in the Desert DVD captures a fraction of the music that took place during the January festival. In addition to expected Malian treats Oumou Sangare and Ali Farka Toure, some surprises Robert Plant, Native American hard rock band Blackfire showed up as well.
Unfortunately, with a three-day festival as the source material, the DVD is disappointingly short at just 52 minutes. As a not-insubstantial portion of those minutes is given over to interviews, the DVD plays more as a ready-for-PBS documentary than as an immersive experience. Yet, with the beautiful desert scenes and the riveting performances given by all the musicians, perhaps the producers of the disc knew what they were doing; after watching for just under an hour, you're left wanting more, and the only way to get more is to book that flight to Timbuktu for the January 2005 festival.