Festival Au Desert, Tomboctou, Mali 2012
It’s almost a year ago to the day. I’m standing in an amphitheater of dunes as dusk wraps itself around the desert. Excited locals, wandering Tuaregs and the odd out-of-place-looking Westerner stand, eyes transfixed, before the stage as a smiling figure approaches wielding a Fender Stratocaster. As he strums the first familiar chords of a song made famous by his now iconic father, Ali Farka Touré, there’s no doubt that the man before us is descended from greatness.
Bassline, Joburg, South Africa 2013
It’s my first visit to this iconic venue, having timed my move back up to Jozi to coincide fortuitously with this happening. Driving through the night for the show, still somewhat exhausted from a paltry two-hour nap in the parking lot of the Colesburg Ultracity, we make it just in time for the set. (Mahala journalists are always late). My reintroduction to the city of golden lights couldn’t be more appropriate. “Parking, 50 bucks.” The soaking wet gatekeeper to the parking lot jabs.
“Yoh, please man, we’ve just driven from Cape Town. We’re broke.” We counter.
“Fine. 20, or take your chances on the street.” Everyone’s on the hustle here and it’s time to join in.
Entering the packed Bassline, a crowd worthy of this bustling metropolis has gathered. I’m reminded why I love this city, and what has ultimately brought me back here. It’s hard to imagine such a racially diverse crowd gathering like this in Cape Town. And, cliché alert, it’s refreshing to feel like you’re actually living on the African continent.
The band takes up their instruments. I recognise some faces, having studied them the previous year as they continually popped up throughout the Festival du Desert, lending their talents to numerous acts and performances. I distinctly remember watching in awe as the very same djembe player who sits beaming in front of me now, played three hour-long sets in a row – hands of steel. Vieux surreptitiously approaches the microphone, and the show begins. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic as the sounds emanating from the stage immediately transport the audience to the swirling desert blues of the Sahel. They don’t let the audience down, knowing what they want to hear. The warm melodies that put Malian music on the map come drifting from the stage, the music of Ali Farka Touré being time-honoured by his son.
Vieux is often nicknamed ‘The Hendrix of the Sahara’, and watching, as he burns through the high paced, repetitive chords synonymous with this style of music, it’s easy to see the comparison. His placid expression barely changes as the tempo of the songs increase. His hands begin to blur in motion. The crowd completely relents to the music, letting down any facades and joining in on the chorus, as the set builds to a crescendo.
Another jolt of déjà vu. Several buxom interlopers hop on stage, dancing between the band members. The previous year in the desert, this kind of thing got so out of hand during Tinariwen’s set that the band was completely outnumbered by dancing fans on stage. Blending into the background, only their continued playing indicated they were still there. Now I’m watching as a woman with big booty and a blond weave approaches Vieux all sultry. He seems used to it, remaining cool under the pressure, not missing a chord.
Invariably the band is urged back for an encore, returning to the stage with opening act Bongeziwe Mabandla. Despite his terrified expression at the prospect of joining the band for an encore, Bongeziwe’s confidence returns in full force as Vieux gives him his chance. Having unfortunately come too late for his show, his brief interlude with the band more than compensates for this. It’s a beautiful moment of Pan-Africaness, rarely seen and only the hardest cynic wouldn’t have been moved by it.
The show ends, and I’m left with an insatiable appetite for more. I always knew, but am now resolute in my ambition to return to Festival du Desert. As Vieux ends the show, in his broken English he thanks the elated audience, and asks for peace to once again return to Mali. As long as his music (and that of his father) is kept alive, epitomised in the roaming caravan touring the world this year, then there will be hope.
*Bassline images © pop skiet, Festival du Desert images © Daniel Hartford.