Leni Sterns Desert Diary

The drive from Timbuktu to Essakane—site of Mali’s Festival in the Desert—takes two hours across the sand. This is no road. The Festival features mostly African artists, along with some Europeans and Americans. Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, and U2 have all appeared in the past, in the hopes of alerting the world to the plight of the region. The advancing desert is swallowing entire villages, and drought has brought the area to the brink of famine.
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After nightfall, the moon shines brightly, illuminating a row of people on fabulously decorated camels. A group from Niger performs on the main stage—n’goni players, percussionists, and singers, with their faces covered, desert style. The groove reminds me of the Tuareg group Tinariwen, but they sound wilder than any recording I’ve ever heard.

A group of guitarists a few dunes away invites me to play with them, and my baritone acoustic causes a stir. It’s tuned to C, like many n’gonis (the primary instrument of Mali, and ancestor to the kora). My knowledge of the pentatonic scale and a few good blues licks are diplomatic passports here. I graduate from “tubab,” or white tourist, to “guitarist.” My heart aches when I see the old, knotted strings some of these artists play. Thankfully, I brought 100 sets to share.

I meet Malian master guitarist Habib Koite, and the country’s most famous n’goni player, Bassekou Kouyate—known as the “Prince of Strings.” We go and play in Kouyate’s tent, where his wife and singer Ami Sacko sit with the rest of the band—a string quartet of n’gonis, with singers and a percussionist playing a calabash (a wooden instrument resembling an upside-down salad bowl).

Many musicians say the blues came from West Africa, and when you play here, you know that it did. West African string players understand American guitarists like a father understands a child. Bassekou, his bass player, and Ami learned my new song, “Inshaallah”—which was written about and for the people of the desert. We performed it together under a blanket of stars.

“Inshaallah” is featured on Stern’s latest CD, Love Comes Quietly.