Festival in the Desert

In the West African nation of Mali, an annual cultural gathering of nomads has been occurring in the Sahara Desert, showcasing musicians from other countries and cultures. Festival in the Desert documents, in part, the three-day happening of January 2003, featuring not only an inspiring array of artists from Mali, but also folks from Britain, France, and the United States.

The highlights are varied yet surprisingly consistent. Most are sterling examples of contemporary Malian music, where traditional acoustic essentials commingle with modern/electric Afro-Euro-American influences. "Win My Plane Fare Home" by Robert Plant and Justin Adams interpolates American blues standards in a manner that includes the melismatic singing of North and West Africa (the style of "worrying" or extending the syllables of a word very common to much Arabic music). Plant's singing is tender and effectively restrained, sounding at times uncannily like the late Jerry Garcia.

Elsewhere, the mesmeric "Wayena" by Malian folk and soul diva Oumou Sangare (maybe Mali's Aretha) has a cyclic rhythm that sounds curiously Celtic, like a piper's drone. Tinariwen's "Aladachan Manin" mixes plaintive West African folk with buzzing electric guitar and a madly insistent bassline. And the wistful, slightly minimalist "Chameaux" by Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi and kora (a lute-like instrument) player Ballake Sissoko, sounds like Philip Glass working a variation on Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." Whether you're a fan of contemporary West African sounds or just want to be a multiculti gatecrasher, this album is a good bet.


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