News Column

Sounds of Timbuktu -- Festival au Desert: Caravan for Peace concert

July 5, 2013


July 05--On Wednesday, July 10, music fans will get an intense dose of desert -- the Sahara -- as the renowned Festival au Desert arrives in town. The occasion is not quite celebratory: the annual event, normally held in Timbuktu, Mali, was canceled there because of escalating civil war and brutalities committed by Islamic extremists.

"This is the continuation of a conflict between north and south that was generated over centuries," said Chris Nolan, one of the Festival au Desert organizers since 2006 and the owner of Clermont Music. "The festival was an attempt to bring everybody together into a neutral space and have them share their cultural traditions. It was pretty successful. Things could be much worse there. It really became a problem because of the outside influences related to religious fundamentalism and influences not native to the region."

The festival has always been a dynamic venue, presenting traditional nomadic Malian music; bands that incorporate rock, blues, and other genres; as well as emerging groups from around Africa and Europe. "Seventy-five percent of the people who perform at the festival are from the north of Mali. Someone from the far north would be more characterized in their music having evolved over time and dramatically influenced by their time in refugee camps in the 1970s and the introduction of electric guitars."

Three performers from the Timbuktu stages play Santa Fe on July 10, offering quite a range of music. Billed as the Caravan for Peace concert and jointly presented by Globalquerque! and the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, it features Mamadou Kelly, Tartit, and Imharhan.

Singer and guitarist Kelly comes out of a traditional Malian background but also mixes in some Delta blues. His band members play calabash (percussion), ngoni (West African plucked lute), and njarka (single-string fiddle).

The Tuareg group Tartit is fronted by vocalist Fadimata Walett Oumar (known as "Disco") and a collective of women who play traditional acoustic instruments and sing. "Tartit was last in this country 10 years ago; it's difficult to bring them here because there are so many people," Nolan said. "The group is really based in tradition, then the program changes into another reality as the group Imharhan comes forward. That band is led by Disco's brother, Mohammed Issa, and transforms the happening into the present with electric guitars.

The so-called "festival in exile" is exposing a broader range of people to the music of the West African desert, but it's also about promoting peace, tolerance, and understanding. "One of the primary songs that Tartit sang at the festival in 2012 is called 'Democracy,'" Nolan recalled. "They're all talking about it. Another artist named Khaira Arby sang 'La Liberte,' which was against enslavement and human trafficking, and in the middle of the song she sang 'Peace, Peace, Peace.'"

The folk art market kicks off Thursday, July 11, with a free celebration at the Santa Fe Railyard. The event -- featuring food, kite flying, and music demonstrations and performances -- begins at 5 p.m. A 12-piece Zulu band from South Africa plays Maskandi music at 6:40 p.m., and then at 8:15 p.m. the West African Highlife Band takes the stage.

Baba Ken Okulolo, that band's leader, was first seen by American audiences as a member of King Sunny Ade's African Beats, but music has been a part of his life since he was a child. His earliest tastes of song and drumming came from listening to his parents and elders growing up among the Urhobo people in the Niger delta region. "Our music held stories of our ancestors as well as stories of daily happenings," Okulolo said in a telephone interview from his longtime home in Oakland, California. "We have music for marriages and for the time the young people are introduced into the world, for all kinds of events and the different aspects of life."

Okulolo has lived in the United States since 1985, but he still relates strongly to his homeland. His people traditionally used canoes for local transportation. Today many prefer motorboats -- which requires money for gasoline. "It should be cheap, but everyday billions of gallons of oil are shipped out, and it is expensive for people in Nigeria to buy. Also, all of the oil spills have changed life in the area I came from, and it is hard for people to fish like they used to. Life is very hard for them to manage."

At age 8, Okulolo began attending Anglican missionary schools, but he also used a shortwave radio to listen to Afro-Cuban songs, American R&B and jazz, and Congolese music, and would sneak out to watch highlife bands. "Highlife music is the music from the West African club scene in the early 1960s, the music that the young Africans who were fortunate enough to travel abroad to study the various professions liked to listen to when they returned. It was first introduced from Ghana, and it was really good middle-class, guitar-based dance music."

His early musical career also takes in the Nigerian palm-wine, Afrobeat, and Afro-rock genres. As a young man, he toured with the highlife band Harmony Searchers before joining the big band of Dr. Victor Olaiya, a legend of the highlife music. After a few years, Okulolo formed the Afro-rock group Monomono with singer Joni Haastrup. He also worked with Afrobeat master Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He toured for two years with King Sunny Ade and made a pair of albums -- E Dide in 1995 and Odu in 1998 -- with the Nigerian singer/guitarist. Today, Okulolo leads the Afro-Groove Connexion and an acoustic band called The Nigerian Brothers, in addition to the West African Highlife Band. That group is made up of Okulolo on bass and four other musicians playing guitar, drumset, talking drums and percussion, and keyboards.

The musical menu broadens further on Friday night (July 12), ?with a concert by TradiSon, the house band at La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant in Havana. Musicians performing or giving workshops during market weekend (Saturday and Sunday, July 13 and 14) include TradiSon, the West African Highlife Band, Jalol Avliyakulov from Uzbekistan, Ihhashi Elimhlophe from South Africa, and Edmond Randriamanantena and Roger Randrianomanana from Madagascar.


--Festival au Desert: Caravan for Peace concert; presented by Globalquerque! and the International Folk Art Market

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 10

Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.

$25-$40; & Tickets Santa Fe at the Lensic (988-1234,

--West African Highlife Band

8:15 p.m. Thursday, July 11

Santa Fe Railyard Park

No charge; 992-7600,

--West African Highlife Band

7 p.m. Friday, July 12

Ashley Pond Park (corner of Central Avenue and 20th Street), Los Alamos

No charge; 690-2484,


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