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The sound of unity in the Saharan desert

A quest for peace results in an eclectic music festival (and Robert Plant!) in the unlikeliest of places.

October 12, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

World music doesn't get much more worldly than this: a festival in the southern Sahara, 50 miles northeast of Timbuktu. Reachable only by camel or four-wheel drive vehicle, just such a three-day event took place this year in an area that has seen generations of conflict between the nomadic and the sedentary communities of the Sahara.

In the mid-'90s, the "Flame of Peace" program initiated a reconciliation between these various groups via a symbolic burning of weapons. Linking that quest for peace with the traditional gatherings of the nomadic Tamashek (also known as Tuareg) people, the eventual result was "Festival in the Desert" -- a remarkable gathering where hostilities are set aside in favor of jam sessions and camel races.

The recording of this remarkable program, "Festival in the Desert 2003" (World Village), focuses on the internationally known figures who made the trek to a site that had little more than tents and temporary performance platforms: Mali's Oumou Sangare and Ali Farka Toure, France's Lo'Jo and, amazingly, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant.

Their performances ring with a spirit and enthusiasm not always evident in their day-to-day efforts. No wonder that Plant -- after singing a gutsy, entirely believable rendering of "Win My Train Fare Home" -- described the festival as "one of the few honest things I have been a part of for a long, long time."

But the music is revelatory on a much broader basis as well. There are the remarkable chanting, drumming performances of ensembles such as Tartit (established in the Tamashek refugee camps) and Kel Tin Lokiene. There is the pervasive presence of the electric guitar, transformed by Adama Yalomba, Sedoum Ehl Aida and Baba Salah into an authentic African voice.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, there is the almost subliminal presence of roots American blues qualities, even in the most traditional ensembles -- a manifestation of continuing musical cross-pollination.

New global sounds

Other recommended current world-music recordings:


Maria de Barros

"Nha Mundo" (Narada World)

De Barros often is compared with Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora, with whom she's now touring. But the Senegalese singer has a more colorfully varied voice and considerably more eclectic musical interests. She sings her share of mornas and coladeiras here, but she also tosses in boleros and, capping her set, Brazil's classic "Manha de Carnaval."



"The Road Less Traveled" (Shanachie)

The young Irish band as been one of the most highly praised new groups of the last few years. Although considerable space is devoted to their spirited instrumental jigs and reels, the emphasis here is on the singing of new member Muireen Nic Amhiaoibh. Her warm contralto and focused storytelling qualities suggest the arrival of a potentially important Celtic star.



"Neguinha Te Amo" (Real World)

Working closely with veteran producer Will Mowatt (Soul II Soul, Angelique Kidjo), Daude has blended Brazilian music with pop forms in a fashion recalling the more attractive efforts of the Tropicalia movement of the '60s. Versatile and imaginative, she raps, she sings with a dark sensuous sound, and she brings a vigor and believability to music that effortlessly sets aside stylistic boundaries.



"Tunula Eno" (Triloka Records)

Uganda's Samite has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade. And that's worked well, musically. His gentle vocal style and temperate flute and kalimba playing are imaginatively supported by Western musicians, bringing a laid-back, New Age touch to his memories of Ugandan traditional songs.


Shujaat Husain Khan

"Hawa Hawa"(Harmonia Mundi/World Village)

Indian classical music for the masses probably is an exaggeration of what sitarist-singer Khan has in mind for this outing. But his decision to concentrate on easily accessible Hindi and Punjabi folk songs affords easy entree for listeners not particularly compelled to master the complex intricacies of ragas and talas.


Various artists

"The Putumayo World Music

10th Anniversary Collection" (Putumayo)

Ten years after an exotic clothing store spawned a world-music record label, Putumayo continues to provide the sort of genre-based collections that introduce unfamiliar listeners to the music of other cultures. This two-CD celebration is a mini-survey of that history, gathering selections from the Congo to Cuba (to paraphrase a Putumayo title), from world lounge and reggae to Latin, Arabic and African grooves. A little something, in other words, for every global taste.


Various artists

"The Hidden Gate: Jewish Music Around the World"

(Rounder Records)

The two primary -- and dramatically contrasting -- areas of Jewish music are displayed in a two-CD set devoted to Israel and the Sephardic world, and the Ashkenaz world. The former is stunningly diverse, with selections from Chava Alberstein and Ofra Haza juxtaposed with tracks from Savina Yannatou and Maurice El Medioni. An intriguing final piece features a choral selection by the Rusape Jews of Zimbabwe. The Ashkenaz disc is largely devoted to the astonishing worldwide reach of klezmer music -- from well-known groups such as the Klezmatics, Brave Old World and the Klezmer Conservatory Band to Klezmer en Buenos Aires and the Klezmer Brazil Band.

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