Kevin Moloney for The New York Times
In Mali, S.U.V.'s and Camels Deliver the Fans
The Festival au Desert, held each January in the remote African city of Essakane, Mali, is a time-shifting experience. This year, as it began to come to life, Tuareg men in billowing clothes and brightly colored turbans ducked in and out of leather and canvas tents. Camels strolled into camp by the hundreds and folded their ungainly legs as vendors prepared their wares for an invasion of foreign travelers.
Nearby, a stage rose out of the dunes, decked in modern sound and lighting gear. Off-road vehicles unloaded musicians fresh from the stomach-churning drive from Timbuktu. Digital cameras flashed. Cellphones sang. MP3 players whispered into western ears.
After dark, turbans bobbed in peaceful Tamashek-language conversation around simple fires, while amplified electric-guitar Malian blues floated from a nearby dune. A cluster of Tuaregs around the guitarist clapped and cheered.
Top acts, from Robert Plant to Jimmy Buffett, have made their way to the festival in recent years, but most are local blues and West African roots musicians. This year’s special guest was Tinariwen, the Tuareg band that recently caught international attention and a spot opening for the Rolling Stones.
As night darkened the sky around the modern stage, I turned and looked over my shoulder. Oblivious to the bright lights and loud music, camels shuffled atop the nearest dune, and a crescent moon set behind Tuareg riders. I smiled. My eyes and ears were separated by hundreds of years.