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In Which Jack Gets ‘Rescued’ from the Island

In August 2010, I found myself shipwrecked on a deserted island with nothing to do but wait for the tide to bring me crates of oranges, bandannas, and CDs.

Then I got picked up by a boat. I expect real life will soon be intruding. Family members to get reacquainted with. Work to go back to. The world’s most powerful sunburn lotion to discover. A year and a half of unpaid parking tickets for leaving my car in a “no parking between 7am and 6pm” spot.

Those sorts of things.

—Jack Hunter

Driftwood is ending its year-and-a-half run as a publication as of tonight. We want to thank everyone for giving us so much music to listen to, the artists and their agents and labels for being so accommodating during our tenure, the writers for contributing their time for nothing more than a copy of a CD and sometimes not even that, and especially the hundreds of readers who showed up each day to check out what we had to say about stuff that was sometimes really unusual. Regretably, real life has interfered in the free time of many of the volunteer writers and editors that made Driftwood possible.

Our articles will be archived at this web address for as long as we can justify renewing the domain. It seems unlikely, however, that we will resume publication.

—Jack H, Jon P, and Paul H (editors and editors emeritus)

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Review: Chris Smither, Hundred Dollar Valentine

Chris Smither
Hundred Dollar Valentine
[Signature Sounds (2012)]

Before rock music found a way to make listeners sad in novel ways, there was country and the blues. Chris Smither has been making quietly successful, powerful songs to make you wistful since 1970. Morrissey and countless Emo bands could learn a thing or two by listening to Smither’s entire catalog, and Hundred Dollar Valentine’s is as good a place as any to start. Here, he sings about life, loss, and regret just like he’s successfully done for the past 30 years.

Chris Smither doesn’t sing about a happy life, but that’s not really what he’s really about (the blues aren’t about sunshine, and country isn’t about happy relationships). Hundred Dollar Valentine is the embodiment of melancholia. Smither has sung about times gone by and regrets before now—see his previous thirteen albums—but there’s something about this particular one that cuts.

You might remember the 2006 album Leave the Light On. Here, he revisits the titular track and borrows his own melody and music for the fantastic track “What They Say”:

They say the good die young but it ain’t certain
I’ve been good all day
I ain’t hurt nothing anyway
I’m too old to die young

Chris Smither sees the end in sight and he’s not certain how he feels about it. He hasn’t hurt anyone, necessarily, but he hasn’t been a sweet little lamb. “Feeling by Degrees” explores the imminence of death and feelings of, not-quite ambivalence. There’s fear there and acceptance and every pluck of the guitar strings twinges your heart.

There’s a ton of artists out there that don’t make you feel anything, even if they’re good. But that’s what Smither excels at: You feel what he’s feeling (or what you think he’s feeling, anyway). He punches you in the face with pure emotion. This isn’t a trip where you come out smiling, but you’ve also never felt so good feeling so miserable.

There’s nothing new here [well, this is Smither's first album of all originals; that's pretty new -ed], but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The wheel was a pretty good invention, and Hundred Dollar Valentine is a damned good album.

—Michael B. Tager (Baltimore, MD)

p.s. Go here to listen: http://smither.com/music/hundred-dollar-valentine-2012/

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Review: Cajun Roosters & Friends, Transatlantic Sessions

Cajun Roosters & Friends
Transatlantic Sessions
[www.cajunweb.de]

Transatlantic Sessions is probably one of the most unusual recordings in Cajun music; but then again, the Cajun Roosters aren’t your ordinary chank-a-chankers either. The award-winning Roosters aren’t from the heart of Cajun country but are actually a pan-European band consisting of Britain’s Chris Hall (accordion/rubboard) and Sam Murray (percussion/lapsteel); Scotland’s (now British resident) Hazel Scott (rhythm guitar); and Germany’s Hartmut Hegewald (fiddle), Michael Bentele (bass), and former Rooster Klaus Warler (guitar). On these 14 tracks recorded between 2009 and 2011, the Roosters break bread with American counterparts Lafayette Rhythm Devils (LRD), Cedric Watson, Dwayne Dopsie, Corey Ledet, and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, among others, playing alongside them in different configurations whenever they toured Europe. Since time was of the essence, amazingly, many tracks were done in one take.

Undoubtedly with a project consisting of over 25 American and European musicians, the highlights can be staggering. Though there are superb renditions of familiar material (“Watch that dog,” “Le sud de la Louisiane,” “J’ai fait mon idée”), longtime Louisiana French music listeners will likely find treasures in the unusual instead. Watson slows down Lawrence Walker’s “Evangeline Waltz” to deliver a haunting vocal performance; Sarah Savoy takes an overlooked Walker novelty gem “Itty Bitty Girl” and twangs it up swing style with co-vocalist Hazel Scott.

Yet, don’t think of the Roosters solely as a backup band. A few of the zydeco tracks, as well as Hall’s steamy R&B composition “Double Shot,” feature the talented Hall alternating on accordion and lead vocals with that track’s featured performer. Dopsie and Hall rip through both a short and a long version of “Don’t mess with my Toot Toot,” with the latter being a torrid jam nearly 11 minutes in length.

Yet, it’s “Valse d’orphelin,” sung by the LRDs’ Yvette Landry, that yields the most emotional impact. With an acoustic accompaniment of guitars, lapsteel, fiddle and dobro, Landry, with her country-ish drawl, emotes the tragic story of a child waking up to find that his mother had been called to the heavens during the night. Once you know the story, it’s hard to make it through with a dry eye—Landry’s performance is that good.

Recommended.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

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Feature Review: Admiral Fallow, Tree Bursts in Snow

Admiral Fallow
Tree Bursts in Snow
[Nettwerk (2012)]

Admiral Fallow‘s Tree Bursts in Snow is a versatile record thoroughly entrenched in modern British folk rock. The 5-piece begins the record with a surprisingly sparse male-female duet, “Tree Bursts,” and the first voice you hear is Sarah Hayes, though nearly all of the leads afterward on the album come from guitarist Louis Abbott. Hayes’s voice provides plenty of the interest throughout by being a sweet foil to Abbott’s slightly mumbly voice and as part of the orchestration throughout. (Check out her little “bops” in “Guest of the Government.”) A pounding indie rocker (“The Paper Trench”) follows this tender opener, and there’s easy pop, folk, and more to be found throughout.

The songwriting remains strong on the diverse material, but it’s how the band handles the arrangements of all their songs that really makes this album stands out. (Some of this is surely thanks to a really top-notch production team at Cem 19 studios.) The hymn-like bridge in “Beetle in the Box” breaks the song out of its simple rock beat, and there’s just enough time left in the song afterward for the band to put a little crescendo into the end of the song. Orchestra instruments like flutes play lovely lines in songs like “Old Fools” and “The Way You Were Raised,” mixing with the heavy guitars and keys and violins to produce a lush, but never cluttered, sound. And the band manages their build-ups better than anything I can think of since Josh Ritter’s “Thin Blue Line.” “Old Fools” qualifies as a “suite” despite being only 6 minutes. I counted at least four musical themes and tunes going on among the instruments and vocal line, and they’re all woven in at various points.

It’s sufficient to say that, if you like any of the British folk- and Americana-inspired indie rock that’s been coming out since Mumford and Sons hit it big a few years ago (but you want better lyrics and songwriting than M&S offers), you should pick up this record. It’s brilliant. You can also listen to the band’s prior work (also recommended) on their Bandcamp site.

Here’s a couple tracks from the record:

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

[Editor's note: The CD version will be released in June. The download was released on May 22.]

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Review: Bap Kennedy, Sailor’s Revenge

Bap Kennedy
Sailor’s Revenge
[Proper (2012)]

When I heard that the raspy voiced troubadour Bap Kennedy had enlisted Mark Knopfler for his latest effort, it was pretty much guaranteed that I would be excited to hear it. But when I heard that Sailor’s Revenge was a collection of Celtic-influenced folksy material, I couldn’t cue it up fast enough. After a February release in the U.K., Proper is giving the disc an international release on June 5th.

Anyone familiar with Knopfler’s most recent record Get Lucky will recognize the same faux traditional material and arrangements; uillian pipes and flutes make their appearance alongside the acoustic guitars, and guests include Jerry Douglas (dobro), Michael McGoldrick (whistle), and John McCusker (fiddle). Knopfler’s unmistakable guitar can be heard throughout. And Kennedy’s voice, which owes a clear debt to Dylan but is much easier on the ears, is the centerpiece of a set of really heartbreakingly beautiful melodies and straightforward lyrics.

Give a listen to the opening track:

The album stays mostly in this tempo range (the most upbeat track, “Working Man,” is still more of a jog than a run), though there is some variety in styles. Several waltzes, the Tex-Mex flavor of “The Right Stuff,” and the classic country of “Maybe I Will” provide a nice breakup in between the songs that owe much more to early- to mid-20th century Irish songcraft.

Kennedy and by extension Knopfler as the producer don’t blaze any new trails, which has been a frequent criticism of Knopfler since, well, as long as I’ve been paying attention to any music criticsm. But to his credit, Knopfler has been reviving a style of music that’s largely fallen by the wayside, and Kennedy’s songwriting and singing on this disc were a perfect match for that ambition. This is an outstanding CD of what could easily be mistaken for classic songs. Give it a listen.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

Oh, hey, look, you can listen to the deluxe edition right here!

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Travelogue: Festival In the Desert 2012

Festival In the Desert 2012

Photos and Essay by Ezra Gale

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In January of 2012 I travelled with a friend to Timbuktu, Mali, for the legendary Festival in the Desert. The trip was a long-planned for pilgrimage to the breeding ground of some of my favorite music on the planetthe crossroads of West African rhythms, Arabic melodies and some scorching electrified guitar. But it wasn’t just the music that made the trip memorable: the northern regions of Mali—a huge, sprawling country that reaches far north into the Sahara Desert and which is dominated by the nomadic Tuareg tribe have fought an on-again, off-again struggle for autonomy with the southern-dominated Malian government almost since the country’s independence from France in 1960. In recent years this tension has ratcheted up a notch, forcing the yearly Festival to move from its normal home of Essakane, 60km north of Timbuktu, to Timbuktu itself because of security concerns. But just in the few months before our trip we heard alarming reports of armed rebellion led by some Tuareg groups recently returned from fighting for Qadafi in Libya, and of kidnappings of Western tourists in Timbuktu itself. Though our trip there was safe, in the days after we left Timbuktu (for a trek along the cliff villages of the Dogon and then to a week in Bamako) we began hearing of northern towns overrun by rebellious Tuaregs. The hints of tension we had seen—armed soldiers patrolling the sand dunes, heated shouting matches between Tuaregs and governments spokesmen at a press conferencehad now boiled over into something approaching civil war.

On March 22 of this year, a few weeks after we left Mali, Malian military officers and soldiers incensed at the government’s poor handling of the situation in the north of the country seized power from the democratically elected president in a coup d’etat. However, if winning control over the Tuaregs was the officers’ aim, it backfired spectacularly. In the weeks following the coup, Tuareg rebels in the north used the chaos to their advantage to seize the northern half of the country, including Timbuktu, and declared themselves the independent nation of Azawad on April 6.

All this could mean that my journal of the 2012 Festival in the Desert (written in February) is by now either a valuable and insightful document or a hopelessly outdated period piecetake your pick. What I do know is that we saw a snapshot in time that will likely not happen again for quite a while, if ever, as prospects for the Festival In the Desert happening again next year are slim to none. Mali, sadly, has bigger troubles to sort out at the moment.

Ezra Gale, Brooklyn, NY, May, 2012

It is 10:30 in the morning on the Niger River in Mali, I am on a 30-foot canoe with a straw awning and outboard motor called a pinasse that is motoring steadily towards a Sahara desert city more known lately for terrorist kidnappings than for sightseeing, and we have just opened our second bottle of vodka. There are 13 of us on board—two Malians who will take turns over the next three days guiding the boat downriver toward Timbuktu and feverishly bailing water out of the bottom of the boat, and a mix of Germans, Australians, Irish, Canadians, Americans, and Russians (hence the vodka). We are headed to the Festival In the Desert, Mali’s legendary annual musical celebration held in the sands of the Sahara every January since 2001.

To get there, my friend Vanessa and I have flown into Mali’s capital city of Bamako, where we spent a whirlwind day darting around that crowded hyperactive city getting our bearings and dancing our asses off to Toumani Diabate’s band that night in a casual outdoor club (the bandleader himself never showed up, but it didn’t matter), then boarded a bus the next morning for an un-airconditioned all-day ride to Mopti, a port town north of Bamako on the Niger River. There we rendezvoused with our gang of internationals who connected on Lonely Planet message boards, rented a pinasse to take us on the three-day journey north down the Niger to Timbuktu, and shoved off the next morning.

The trip to the Festival in the Desert is a demanding travel experience even in the easiest of times, which, of course, is part of the festival’s allure. This year, however, is not the easiest of times. In November, four tourists were abducted from a Timbuktu hotel; one of them, a German, was shot dead when he resisted, the other three French nationals were still in captivity somewhere in the desert at the time of this writing. This violence and the attendant worsening of the security situation in the north of Mali—another two Frenchmen were kidnaped from nearby Hombori in November as well—has had an enormous ripple effect. The last few years the festival has been moved from its normal home of Essakane, 60 km north of Timbuktu in the desert, to just outside of Timbuktu itself because of general security concerns. But this year tour companies, who supply the vast bulk of the international tourists who attend the Festival each year (and effectively subsidize it, entrance to the Festival being free to Malians), have reported cancellation rates exceeding 50%. This steep drop-off in attendance has in turn choked off the economic lifeblood for a major sector of the Malian economy: the guides, merchants, hotels, restaurants, boat drivers, street vendors, and others who depend on the income from Festival-bound tourists to carry them through much of the rest of the year.

Yesterday in Mopti, for example, we paused from our wanderings along the bustling port for a late afternoon beer at Café Bozo, a rundown but gorgeously situated outside bar on a point overlooking the harbor. It should have been crammed with festival-bound tourists—there is no better spot to watch the boats entering and leaving the harbor, the colorful merchants along the waterfront selling everything from piles of red chili powder to brightly patterned cloth, the blocks of salt being unloaded off boats that have arrived from Timbuktu (where the salt arrives by camel caravan from Taoudenni, far north in the Sahara). Yet it was only myself and my friend Vanessa plus five local vendors who hawked CD’s, Mali soccer jerseys, bracelets, shoulder bags, and cloth to us with increasing tinges of desperation. One of them even pleaded with me, “Please sir, for me, there are no tourists! Where are the tourists?”

This drop-off in tourist traffic has everyone we meet on edge, and if the chatter seems excessive, it’s because the Festival in the Desert is much more than just a music festival. Started in 2001 as a celebration of Tuareg music and culture, the festival was a product of the heady optimism that followed a peace treaty in 1996 that ended years of fighting between the Tuaregs and the Malian government. The Tuaregs, a nomadic people who live in the desert regions of Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Libya, have fought various wars with various governments for more autonomy and greater rights over several decades; the festival and the not-incidental economic boost it provides was intended in large part to cement this new era of peaceful relations. In the years since, it has become a showcase for the sometimes tenuous unity that binds this staggeringly diverse West African nation together—a unity that can seem strongest when centered on the incredible music this country produces.

From the raw “desert blues” of the Sahara to the trance-inducing Wassalou and guitar-rich Manding music of the country’s south, Mali’s music is a point of national pride in a country brimming with different ethnicities and languages. Public buses blast Ali Farka Toure over their stereo systems; distinctly Malian electro-pop blares out of dusty sidewalk speakers in Bamako; taxi drivers play worn cassettes of Salif Keita or Rokia Traore or Oumou Sangare while they look for fares. The 11 of us white people on our pinasse obviously agree: we’re all in some way enchanted enough with Mali’s musical culture to ignore the warnings from family, friends, and governments about the worsening security situation in the north of Mali and embrace the journey. That journey now includes passing around the second bottle of vodka of the morning and then stretching out on the straw awning in the sun, watching the riverbanks and villages that look unchanged since centuries ago.

Three days, two nights of camping on the riverbank, one boat breakdown (we were rescued by some new friends on another pinasse who lashed our boat to theirs and towed us until our motor started again), and several delicious meals of capitan stew (a river fish we bought from fishermen along the way) later, we arrive in Timbuktu. A bustling, dusty desert town, Timbuktu lives up to its reputation as the crossroads of the north African desert and sub-Saharan Africa. Its sandy streets are framed by mud brick Arabic-looking buildings broken by corrugated metal shacks, and everywhere there are olive-skinned men in robes mingling with dark-skinned men wearing brightly patterned cloth; women in Islamic robes with covered faces walking alongside African women with babies strapped to their backs and bags of rice balanced on their heads. We find a basic room off a walled, sandy courtyard at a hotel right on the edge of town and within sight of the Flame of Peace, a monument to the Tuareg peace treaty that contains the remnants of machine guns turned in and set afire at the end of that war. We meet an Italian and have broken conversations in equal parts English, French, and Spanish over a dinner of spaghetti bolognese and beer, and when we learn that this was the hotel the tourists were kidnapped from in November, we try not to think about it too much.

***

The next day we walk through sand dunes from our hotel on the outskirts of town to the Festival, check in and find our home for the next three days—a Tuareg tent at the base of a sand dune with mattresses inside. The Festival doesn’t officially start until tonight, but already we pause outside one of the artist tents next to ours to listen to a crowd of people spilling out of one of the tents, their gorgeous singing and clapping a portent of what’s to come. The stage is nestled in a bowl between two high sand dunes on either side of it, and over the next three days there will be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people spread out in this natural sand amphitheater.

Around 5 o’clock the show starts, announcements are made (“Thanks to the governor of the Timbuktu region for providing the security to allow us to have the festival,” says one speaker at the opening ceremonies), and we’re off. The whole first night is dazzling. Despite the speakers and equipment surrounded by sand, despite all the nervous murmurings about security (which have translated into Malian army troops hanging out virtually everywhere you turn and must equal more AK-47’s here than at any music festival, anywhere), despite not being in a part of the world known for its punctuality, everything sounds amazing and runs on time. We are at a top-tier international world music festival, and after all the chatter about politics and kidnaping, it’s nice to remember that this is why we came here in the first place.

The night opens with a “tribute to the region of Timbuktu” which features a lineup of women singers, including the striking Khaira Arby, who is becoming slightly well-known in U.S. world music circles. It’s gorgeous, traditional Tuareg singing and percussion, with the added effect of a trippy, effected electric guitar soloing through much of the set—it seems old Pink Floyd cassettes have been making their way through the Sahara music scene. Several of the next groups set the tone for what we will see over the next few days. Hard, 12/8 rhythms from Alkibar Junior in particular have the growing crowd excited and jumping up and down. It’s the Tuareg rock sound that dominates the festival and never fails to energize the crowd.

But there is variety. Oumar Kouyate plays Afro-fusion, with synth keyboards and long guitar solos and a midget dancer who will reappear in several sets at the festival and is a crowd favorite. Kouyate is an impressive guitar player, but there are a few too many syrupy ballads in his set, and it’s obvious by the crowd’s wandering attention during them that they want the hard stuff they can dance to. Abdoulaye Diabate plays high energy Manding groove, a style from southern Mali with gorgeous interlocking guitar parts, and with the N’goni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate and the American harmonica player Joe Conte (whom everyone calls “Jeconte”) sitting in, it’s a good representation of the cross-cultural jam session vibe that the festival emanates. “We are Tamashek, Songhai, Bambara, all in one place, we are all together,” says Diabate at one point. “The whole world is here.”

By the time the last two bands of the night take the stage, there are a few thousand people in the sand in front of the stage, spilling up on the sand dunes on either side taking in the show. Mamar Kassey and Koudede are both from neighboring Niger, but that’s almost all they have in common. Mamar Kassey is tight, polished Afro-groove, with traditional instruments like the calabash and the kora mixing with electric guitar and bass and leader Yacouba Moumoni’s voice and flute. It’s driving, impossibly funky music with tight, unison breaks and two beautiful women backup singers who show off electrifying synchronized dance moves. By contrast, Koudede is sloppy and monotonous, with songs that all charge ahead and invariably fall apart in the end—yet are absolutely glorious. It’s a huge party on stage that spills out into the crowd, there are several mosh pits and many hands in the air, and the whole scene during their set, stratospherically high energy, distorted lead guitar and many in the crowd singing along at the top of their lungs, is like a desert punk rock show. It ends up as many people’s favorite set of the whole weekend.

Afterwards we wander around buzzed on energy and end up around a campfire with some members of Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali’s band. They invite me and David Ellenbogen, who has a radio show in New York, back to their hotel in Timbuktu the following afternoon for an intimate performance.

***

And so it is that we find ourselves sitting on the floor in the cool shade of a hotel lobby in Timbuktu the next afternoon, listening to Noura singing and playing the ardine, a 14-string kora-like instrument from Mauritania played only by women, accompanied by two members of her band, her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly on the tidinit (a stringed lute that is called an N’goni in Mali), and Jaafar Bethiama on the t’beul, a bowl-shaped drum. Noura’s gorgeous voice swoops in long Arabic-sounding phrases as she sings “El Baroum,” an old classic song about “life being beautiful” that reflects the Moorish storytelling tradition of a singer singing verses as someone whispers news into their ear. They play more music, Noura tells us (with her drummer Matthew Tinari, translating for us from French) about being a griot and the strong role music plays in society, about her father being a musician who wrote the national anthem of Mauritania, about her songs that are intended as messages for the youth of Mauritania, one of them even tells young men to stay away from terrorists. When they’re done someone from the festival arrives bearing a huge roasted pig wrapped in butcher paper; it’s a traditional Mauritanian meal and everyone kneels around the pig on the floor and tears off chunks with their bare hands. When they invite me to join them, who am I to refuse? It’s delicious.

Back at the festival, I attend a press conference with the festival director Manny Ansar in a desert tent, where he fields questions and talks about the history and difficulty of staging a festival in the desert sands. When a Morrocan journalist asks what Al Qaeda thinks of the festival, Answar says somewhat defensively that they haven’t had any messages from Al Qaeda for 12 years but have heard from people in refugee camps that the group says they are not interested in the festival and not here to cause problems. To questions of how the festival and its wild celebration of culture fits into the regions’ visions of Islam, he places the festival in Timbuktu’s long tradition of tolerance and acceptance of outsiders as a centuries-old trading city. The festival, he says, “is in harmony with our vision of Islam, which says welcome to everybody.” The conference lasts over an hour, and I notice that, reflecting the festival’s importance in the political fabric of Mali and the whole Sahara region, there are barely any questions about music.

I wander around taking in the whole desert scene, Tuaregs in beautiful indigo robes touting rides on their camels, soldiers in camouflage wearing ski hats or turbans who stand in the sun with big guns, looking bored. I hear gorgeous music coming from one of the artists tents and am invited inside; it’s Amira Kheir, a Sudanese living in London who will play later that evening with two Columbians who play guitar and percussion and flute, rehearsing their songs.

The music starts that evening on the mainstage with Igbayen Tindiba- a cultural group of Tuareg singers, some of them clapping and singing unison background vocals while others sing wailing Arabic-sounding melodies on top. Amira Kheir is next, and her set is mellow compared to the pulsating energy of much of the bands from the night before, but many heads bob in the crowd anyway. Kheir’s voice is beautiful, Arabic-inflected melodies over flamenco guitar and a flute player who doubles on cajon and djembe, and a Tuareg guitarist sits in for a nice cross-cultural moment. Next up is Amanar, from Kidal, another northern region of Mali. It’s desert rock but turned down a little, a bit more laid back and mellow but still a trance-inducing groove. They add keyboards too, for a twist on the normal Tuareg rock sound.

Then it’s Noura Mint Seymali’s turn, and she starts with a set of traditional songs similar to what she played for us that afternoon. Her voice is arresting, and especially when the drums and rest of the band enter for the second half of the set and things get more electrified the crowd perks up and starts going wild. She’s clearly a star in her native country, up at the front there are Mauritanian flags being waved and people climb on each other’s shoulders to snap a better picture with their cell phones. The music gets more electric and modern towards the end of her set, even mixing in reggae and some Manding-style grooves. It’s a true fusion of styles and cultures, and Noura turns into a pop star diva, charismatic and electrifying.

After she’s done, something unexpected happens—a schedule change is announced and Tinariwen, easily the most popular band here, takes the stage. There is a massive movement in the crowd, with people running down the dunes to the left of the stage to get closer as the band begins their set with play a couple of mellow acoustic songs. And then it happens: Bono is announced, and there he is, the bug-eyed shades and black jeans, the arms stretched toward the sky in a rock star victory salute. And the crowd . . . well, the crowd doesn’t do much.

The problem is that this is one of the few places on earth where hardly anyone knows who he is. I joke later that if Bono really wanted to help Africa he could have just donated the money spent on his security detail at the festival, since nobody wanted to get close to him. He launches into a semi-bluesy 15-minute plus improv with Tinariwen, in which he repeatedly tries and fails to get the crowd to sing along in various call-and-responses and repeats several lines—like “viva le chansons du desert” a few too many times. Even so, his appearance here deserves respect. In a year when the festival needs positive attention, Bono’s mere presence in the sand dunes north of Timbuktu is the biggest international pop-star endorsement the festival could get. Perhaps his appearance here will causes a handful of international tourists to figure that the festival is a safe, worthwhile adventure next year, and it will have been worth it.

Still, there is no escaping the fact that his turn dragged on too long and, musically anyway, was a festival low point. The next day a local Tuareg will laugh as he tells me of a conversation he overheard in the crowd from two other Tuaregs who had been watching and enjoying Tinariwen’s set. One of them, upset and angry at this intrusion by an unknown singer into his favorite band’s set, said something to the effect of “What the fuck! Who is this guy? What is going on?” to which his friend replied, “Just be patient. He is very important to the white people.”

The cultural collision that was Bono and Tinariwen points up another fascinating fact about being here. Our American ears hear mostly in four—just about everything on our radios and every popular song has four beats to a measure. Quick: name the last pop song that had three beats to a measure. Was it My Favorite Things? The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Breaking the Girl? Whatever it was, you can be sure people didn’t dance to it. But here in the desert (and indeed, over much of Africa), it’s the reverse. It’s the fast rhythms in three or six that get people going, the other sections of songs, the quiet parts in 4/4, the ballads, the more westernized songs, are when people check their cell phones, look around for their friends, wonder how much longer the concert will last. Then the band hits a section in six—and it is usually those sections in 12/8 that do it (the polyrhythmic bombast of a four-on-the-floor beat with triplets layered on top)—and absolute mayhem ripples through the crowd. Teenage boys form circles and show off their dance moves, hands wave in the air. You can sit up on the sand dune to the left of the stage where people hawk cigarettes and beer and delicious skewers of goat meat and actually see this in action—the crowd moves as one, pulsating like a giant dance floor with bass speakers that make the floor shake. Being here is like visiting a different planet. Instead of listening to an African band play and being surrounded by other “world music” geeks, we are witnessing pop music in its native habitat. The impossibly funky 6/8 grooves that can come off as alien to western ears are instead the lingua franca of dance music, and the handful of us western travelers who have journeyed all the way here soak it up while we can.

Late Saturday night, after Tinariwen and Bono, during the Ali Farka Toure tribute that featured some scorching guitar playing from Vieux Farka Toure (Ali Farka’s son) and Samba Toure and yet more virtuosic N’goni from Bassekou Kouyate, I was exhausted from staying up all night the night before and walking around in the desert sun all day; I turned to leave before it was over. I passed a group of teenagers break dancing to Ali Farka’s music and as they pulled me in, dancing, I realized I wanted to squeeze every last drop out of being here and stayed for another hour. Sleep is for later.

***

The following afternoon I wander around and end up sitting in a tent playing guitar with Hamma from the band Taflist, who initially tries to get me to sit down for cups of tea (translation: we want to sell you jewelry), but then brightens when I suggest playing guitar together instead. We play for several hours; he plays gorgeous circular Tuareg-style riffs while I try and keep up, and then things are reversed when he tells me to play “American music” and I teach him James Brown songs. Towards the end, Jeconte wanders by with his harmonica, and Bibi too, an excellent guitar player and singer who was part of Koudede’s set on Friday. We all jam, then I wander back to Jeconte’s tent with him and we have lunch and play some improvised desert blues together.

Later there is another press conference in a big desert tent, this one on the issue of security in northern Mali. It is packed with Tuaregs and some journalists who sit and listen to speeches by some of the Malian military- but the affair quickly devolves into a tense shouting match. It’s all in French, but the Tuaregs are incensed that there is no translation into Tamashek, their language, and many of them stand and heatedly shout down the speakers. The conference lasts several hours, and not being able to understand the language I leave early, but my friends Bobby and Liz later interview an Algerian journalist who gives them a lengthy summary of the tension that has enveloped Tuareg–Mali relations for years and are on the brink of exploding again. In fact, since we have landed in Bamako, it seems that everyone we have met has an opinion about the situation here, from tour guides in Bamako touting their services to frustrated merchants in Mopti to innkeepers in Timbuktu. A laundry list of these swirling rumors would read something like this:

- The November kidnappings were the work of Tuareg bandits, who then sold the victims to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (whom everyone calls by its French acronym AQMI), since the Tuaregs are interested in money, not ideology.

- There is no AQMI and maybe no Al Qaeda either, that’s just American intelligence creating a useful boogeyman.

- There is an AQMI, they have between 200 and 500 members, last year they attempted a truck bomb in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, but this was thwarted by French intelligence.

- There is tension between AQMI and the Tuaregs, since Al Qaeda’s vision of Islam is more austere than that of the Tuaregs and doesn’t allow for the rich music and culture across the Sahara. In fact, just recently the Tuaregs bought back 25 of their own kidnapping victims from AQMI.

- The problems in the north stem not from Al Qaeda but from returning Tuareg fighters from Libya, where they had been armed and trained by Qadaffi.

- The real issue isn’t ideology or terrorism, it is the vast mineral (particularly uranium) and oil deposits thought to be underneath the desert sands. The battle for more autonomy in the northern regions of Mali is therefore a battle for control over these valuable resources.

- The real issue isn’t ideology or terrorism, it is the drug smugglers from Columbia who use the lawless regions of the Sahara as the major transit point for South American cocaine bound for the lucrative markets of Europe. The Tuaregs and AQMI both benefit from this transit and therefore have an interest in keeping the region as chaotic and lawless as possible. In fact, a Boeing 727 plane from Columbia recently crashed in the desert and was cut into pieces and set on fire, its supposed cargo of cocaine long since carted off, before any government authorities could arrive on the scene.

- The Malian military is waiting for the Festival to finish and for the tourists to leave to begin a major offensive against the Tuareg rebels.

Most of these rumors are unverifiable at the moment (since the Festival, however, the situation in the north of Mali has in fact boiled over. Reports are that since the end of January Tuareg rebels have taken four villages by force, including Ali Farka Toure’s home of Niafunke. The fact that many of the fighters are returning members of Qaddaffi’s army has received heavy coverage in the western media). But despite the incredible music and the festival running so smoothly, there are constant reminders of the tension here. The military jeeps parked on top of every sand dune, the many patrolling soldiers in the crowd, the full-throated confrontation at the security issues press conference.

That evening before the lineup on the main stage kicks off, there are ceremonies honoring the Prime Minister of Mali, Madam Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé who sits in a makeshift grandstand opposite the stage amid heavy military security. As the sun sets behind the sandy sky, Tuaregs in fine robes with daggers hanging from their belts show off their camels, someone leads a train of camels with different banners draped on their humps—for Orange cell phone plans and the local political party, among others—around the crowd, and an ensemble plays traditional takamba music with calabash, women singers and heavy distorted guitar. An announcer lists all the different countries in attendance among the crowd and a representative of each proudly bounds on stage as the crowd applauds, some of my friends from the pinasse among them.

We’re then treated to a third night of altogether stunning music. Bassekou Kouyate kicks things off and justifies his reputation as “the Jimi Hendrix of the N’goni.” Backed only by bass and drums, Bassekou’s electrified N’goni captivates the crowd, he even fuses his traditional instrument with the modern (or at least with the 1970’s) by soloing over bluesy vamps with a wah-wah pedal. Khaira Arby is next and is the best advertisment possible for Malian unity: a line up of gorgeous female singers, tight and rollicking Wasselou rhythms, a Tuareg sword dancer and Khaira’s searing voice on top. American Andrea Chitouras sits in on bass for a few tunes and is excellent.

I wander around taking in the whole scene. The women sell skewers of meat high on the dune to the left of the stage, the men walking through the crowd selling warm bottles of beer out of plastic garbage bags. A speaker onstage during a changeover thanks the women of Timbuktu for donating food, couscous, and macaroni for the people returning from Libya. A lengthy traditional Tuareg singing and drumming set morphs into Tartit, who raise the energy level with Tuareg rock spiced with gorgeous female vocals. The schedule is running late though, and after the announcer tries to get them to stop, the plug is pulled on their set, which incenses them and causes a small scene on stage when the stage crew breaks down their equipment while Tartit’s singer angrily denounces the festival and Haibib Koite, the next artist. It may just have been a musician annoyed at being cut off, but in this atmosphere it’s hard not to read at least some of the swirling Tuareg-southern Malian tension into it. When I see Tartit’s lead female singer in the crowd later and thank her for her gorgeous music, she is still fuming. “We couldn’t finish!” she gesticulates angrily at me.

It’s a shame because Haibib Koite’s set is luminous, perhaps the most professional and virtuosic of the whole festival. Haibib’s band, a longtime unit, has a relaxed air about them even though the music they play sounds impossibly complex. It’s as if they’re all playing percussion, the two guitars, the bass, the balafon, and the drums. Cross rhythms appear everywhere in his music, and Haibib’s nylon string acoustic guitar floats above it all, cutting across everything and improvising gorgeous melodies. He plays several hits that the crowd sings along with; during “No More Cigarettes” there is a hand-waving mosh pit up near the stage.

Tinariwen closes the festival, and though they’re the band most have come to see here, the crowd has thinned considerably by the time they hit the stage at 2:45 in the morning. Their set is powerful and gathers steam as it moves along; it doesn’t have the punk rock energy of Koudede or some of the other younger Tuareg bands, but they’re clearly now the elder statesmen of this style, and there is a welcome mature refinement to their sound.

The problem is, I have been up for three days straight with a few hours of sleep sprinkled in. I’ve danced my ass off to the most high-energy music on the planet and wandered around in the desert sun during the day. I want to stay until the end, but my body forms a picket line and goes on strike. I give in and reluctantly trudge over the dunes to my tent. I pass out for about an hour, then rise before dawn and haul my backpack to a waiting 4 x 4 that will take me and seven others on a cramped, all day ride south to the Dogon Country, one adventure beginning as this one recedes.

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Review: Jon Chandler, The Gang

Jon Chandler
The Gang
Arroyo Records

You can’t sing about the land if you don’t ride the land. When it comes to the rugged Wyoming terrain, Jon Chandler certainly knows a thing or two since he’s been riding the Outlaw Trail (near Kaycee, WY) with a crew of cowboys since 1978. Hence, the inspiration for The Gang, songs inspired by the annual pilgrimages with vivid campfire and scenic imagery (“Through the Gap”). Additionally, there are glimpses of colorful characters like western journalist Red Fenwick (“Ridin’ With Red”) and a late rider Smokey where the deceased gallops away with spirit riders to the great roundup in the sky. Many songs are played in tempos that give the sensation of riding across the sagebrush prairies, through deep stone canyons and on top of overlooking bluffs.

Call it sophisticated cowboy music if you will. “Ride The Red Wall” is simply an epic; a majestic soundtrack-like instrumental that feels spacious enough to transport one’s soul to the beyond. At various points, Chandler delivers spoken word reflections that makes it feel like as close to a multi-media experience as you’ll likely get, just without the video.

But do pay attention to the liner notes, because without them some songs may feel deceivingly out of place. The hilarious “Bug Guts on the Windshield,” written when one rider was transported to a local hospital, is an amusing account of a husband discovering his wife has been unfaithful. The telltale clue? A bug-splattered windshield indicating that someone snuck into town while the husband was away. The timeless “Oh, Shenandoah!” fits since it was a campfire favorite. Here, Chandler dubs his voice a few times on the intro to make it feel like a resounding men’s choir. Though Chandler doesn’t sing much past after the opening lines, the arrangement, led by guitarist Ernie Martinez’s splendid finger picking, blossoms into a beautiful orchestral swell. A modern western classic, to say the least.

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)