Performing under the shadow of a government clampdown.
Times are hard in Mali these days, where internal conflict has led to the rise of an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism that has banned secular music. Banning music in Mali is like banning pasta in Italy; it makes no sense at all. One of the biggest casualties of this draconian measure is the annual Festival au Desert, an international concert that brings together acts from all over the world, and has been responsible for publicizing local talent like Tinariwen, Khaira Arby and Bassekou Kouyate.
Live from Festival au Desert 2012 is a document from the 2012 festival, which took place just days before the rebellion. As might be expected, the recording quality is less than pristine; security fears loomed large, and there was no chance to bring in sophisticated equipment. Recorded directly off the stage's sound board, this album has a bootleg-quality feel to it, with a thin bottom end and sometimes strident treble. However, as a testament to courage in the face of oppression, it's as powerful as anything you're likely to hear this year.
As is often the case with live concerts, the album takes a little time to get going. Habib Koite's rousing, effortlessly propulsive "Wari" is an early highlight, but several tracks feel a little tentative, even when offered up by the likes of the Ali Farka Toure Allstars or desert blues stalwarts Tartit. That band's "Democratie" sounds positively ragged, and not in a good way. The reliable Bassekou Kouyate contributes "Poye", a hypnotic instrumental that benefits much from its surging bassline but which is over all too quickly. Tamnana weighs in with "Odwa", which might charitably be described as unpolished. At this point, halfway through the record, a listener might be forgiven for thinking that this concert was perhaps more worthy than listenable.
Happily, the second half of the concert—or at least, the second half of the album—picks up considerably. Noura Mint Seymali offers her powerful, undulating vocals in the show-stopping "Vaghu", a nice counterpoint to the male-dominated performances thus far and an impressive showing by any standard. This is followed by Samba Toure's "Walahi Mbafo", one of those desert blues songs that just effortlessly gallops along, powered by layers of picked guitar, thrumming percussion and strong call-and-response vocals. Soon afterward, the hurricane-voiced Khaira Arby appears with "La Liberte", another intricate composition propelled by an irresistible bassline and sound quality which is noticeably better than many of the other tracks here.
Baba Djire’s "Dounia" is a gently rolling composition that contrasts well with the intensity of the previous few tracks, but it is Kiran Ahluwalia's performance of "Mustt Mustt" that stands out as the album highlight. With a honey-smooth voice and remarkable control, the Canadian-born Ahluwalia slides languidly over the notes of this traditional Indian tune, ably backed by Tinariwen, with whom she recorded the song for her 2011 album Common Ground. When the band kicks in for the midtempo second half of the song, the listener feels a little thrill in the stomach—a pale shadow, no doubt, of what the audience have felt at the concert itself.
The other highlight is the bluesy slow jam "Bisimillah", performed by Oumar Konate and Leila Gobi, a moving duet that channels traditional 12-bar blues into a new landscape, enriching both in the process. Scratchy guitars and thrumming bass provide a solid underpinning for the plaintive vocals, with occasional solo bursts energizing the proceedings. Oh and there's some fairly random piano as well, just for the hell of it.
All in all, then, this is a flawed album but probably a fairly accurate portrayal of the day itself. It can't be repeated often enough: the courage of these artists in pursuing their passion in the face of life-threatening developments is admirable. If for no other reason, listeners should consider picking up this album to support both the musicians and the organizers of the festival. Happily, though, this is no mere charity gesture: there are enough solid performances here, and even a few outstanding ones, to make this an album worth owning for its own sake.