M'Hamid, Morocco - Rousing desert rhythms brought to life the oasis of M'Hamid, last stop in Morocco before the vast empty wastes of the Sahara, as musicians from across the region descended on the dunes.
The Taragalte music festival kicked off in earnest at the weekend under a spectacular star-lit sky, with a list of women's groups, from Morocco, Mauritania and Mali topping the bill.
Camel racing, poetry and traditional dance featured among the palm trees and rolling sand dunes of M'Hamid, with the festival celebrating - and seeking to preserve - a desert culture undermined by modernity, according to its organisers.
Mauritanian group Noura Mint Seymali captivated the crowd with a powerful delivery from the vocalist, Noura, accompanied by a virtuoso performance from Ayniyana, her accomplice on the ardine, a 20-string harp similar to the kora.
Next up was the Malian group Tartit, 10 Tuareg women from the northern region of Timbuktu, whose traditional music, a hypnotic blend of chanting, clapping and drumming, added poignancy to the Moroccan event.
Unrest forced the group to flee Mali in February, just two weeks after they played at Timbuktu's famed desert festival, with Islamist militants later occupying the entire northern region, banning music, destroying ancient shrines and forcing women to wear the veil.
A sign placed below the stage read: “Taragalte pays homage to Timbuktu, heritage of humanity.”
Oum, the budding Moroccan star who headlined the opening night at Taragalte with her five-piece soul band, said the festival sent a message of solidarity to the musicians and the women of Mali.
“It's a chance to say that we support them, and the freedom of the arts, and the freedom just to be,” she told AFP. “It's a message that is even stronger because it comes through the voices of women.”
Taragalte, now in its fourth year, has forged strong links with its Malian counterpart, which the organisers have attended yearly, inviting musicians to M'Hamid from the festival in Timbuktu - just a 50-day camel ride away, locals quip.
Malian guitarist Samba Toure, a protege of Mali music legend Ali Farka Toure, made an appearance at M'Hamid, while renowned Tuareg group Tinariwen played at the inaugural event in 2009.
Rich desert culture
Osman Toure, bass player for the Mauritanian group Noura Mint Seymali, which was also invited to play at M'Hamid during the Timbuktu festival in January, praised the Moroccan initiative, following the events in Mali.
“I find that the desert, the tents... Of course they are different cultures. But it's the same spirit. There is a great similarity between the two festivals,” Toure said.
“It was a moment of tragedy that took place (in Mali) with respect to the music... Many of the musicians fled to Mauritania, as well as Senegal and Burkina Faso. But despite that, many of them ended up here.”
M'Hamid El Ghizlane lies deep in the desert, on the edge of the arid Draa valley, some 250 kilometres southeast of Ouarzazate, the so-called gateway to the Moroccan Sahara, and 40 kilometres from the Algerian border.
Centuries ago, it was used by the camel caravans plying the old trade route between Morocco and Timbuktu, but the closure of the Algerian border in 1994 means any overland trip, however hazardous, is no longer possible.
Halim Sbai, one of Taragalte's main organisers, speaks passionately of the need to preserve “the natural and cultural patrimony of the desert,” including by allowing local people to participate, displaying their traditions and music at the festival.
The construction of a hydro-electric dam at Ouarzazate in 1972, to provide for the city's growing population and tourist trade, with its five-star hotels and golf courses, took a heavy toll on water supplies to M'Hamid, Sbai explained.
“The dam deprived the region of water that, before it was built, flowed from the High Atlas mountains all the way here.”
“We are in an oasis that needs to be preserved. It's a very fragile environment. And we try to get tourists to help us with that, so we can leave it for future generations,” Sbai said. - Sapa-AFP