Making Music in Mali

IDC student travels to African country for college radio channel.

Malian child holding Campos' IDC microphone 311 (photo credit: daniel campos)
Malian child holding Campos' IDC microphone 311
(photo credit: daniel campos)
After a spate of kidnappings the past few years drove western tourists to abandon Mali as a travel destination, one Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (IDC) student traveled there this month on a personal media and music pilgrimage, with Israeli press credentials in tow.
Daniel Campos went to Mali, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, for the Festival au Desert, which ran January 12-14. The festival is a world-renowned gathering for fans of traditional African music from the Saharan region and across the continent. In 2010, the festival was moved from the remote town of Essakane to an area of the desert outside Timbuktu.
The move followed a string of kidnappings of Western tourists by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which prompted the government and organizers to have the concert held in an area where security could be more easily ensured.
For years, Mali has played host to tens of thousands of Western visitors in the winter months, who came to take in the sights of Timbuktu, follow in the footsteps of the ancient Mali Empire and trek along the vast Saharan landscapes of dunes and starry night skies.
Since the first of several kidnappings of Westerners began in 2008, the tourist industry has crawled to a halt in Mali, where it was always something of a lifeline for the desperately poor land-locked country in West Africa. After gunmen killed a German citizen in Timbuktu in November and kidnapped five other Europeans, the country became a no-go area for Western tourists, leaving Campos and the other 5 intrepid Israelis he met on his trip among only around a 100 Westerners who braved the journey to the festival earlier this month.
When asked why he made the journey to Mali by way of Ethiopia this month, the 26- year-old communications student said simply, “The music.”
The IDC student runs a radio show called “No Borders Music,” broadcast on Saturdays on Herzliya’s 106.2 FM. The show broadcasts across the northern Dan region and focuses on tribal and traditional forms of music from around the globe.
Campos convinced the IDC to help him receive press credentials to cover the festival for his radio show, and he managed to make his way to Mali with press credentials secured through an Israeli university radio show, which also allowed him to take some highly valuable recording equipment with him on the journey.
His press credentials included a badge he wore around his neck that said, “Press – Israel” and an IDC microphone with Hebrew lettering on it. With his official documents in tow, he said he was given access to all areas of the festival, and was able to meet face-to-face with many of the West African musicians who he said have been his heroes for years. These included Habib Koite and Grammy Award nominee Bassekou-Kouyate, both of whom he met and interviewed. In one of those recordings, Bassekou-Kouyate can be heard welcoming Israelis to visit Mali, and describing how music “is a medicine that heals all people.”
Campos, who made aliya from Costa Rica in 2007, related how, while he was holding his microphone, people “were coming up to me asking what language is that. I’d say, “Hebrew, Israel,’ and they just didn’t seem to know or care less.”
Campos has very strong feelings about what he calls “BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] assholes” who call for foreign musicians to boycott Israel.
On some level, it appears his trip was not only a way to gain some experience doing fieldjournalism work and enjoying great music, but also a way to launch his own personal antiboycott effort.
“Artists who are not coming to play in Israel because they have some impression of Israelis that they’re all fascists or closeminded, I think if you got there, people see who you are. They’re just not very familiar with us.”
He also said he feels it’s important that Israelis not group all Muslims together, saying that he witnessed what he said was a very different feeling toward Israel and Jews than in the Arab Muslim world.
Outside of the festival, he toured the countryside, taking pictures of the dirt roads jammed with scooters, witch doctors practicing their trade in earthen pits, construction sites funded by Gaddafi that were left abandoned when the NATO campaign began, and the occasional Bin Laden bumper sticker.
More than anything else, he said he saw a destitute and beautiful country, full of people who did not just see him as a walking ATM machine.
Campos did express some sentiments that his “hasbara-ofone” motive seemed to remind others of like-minded Israelis who took the path of outreach to their nation’s enemies and paid a price. Still, Campos said he was well aware of the dangers posed by kidnappings and armed groups in Mali, and said he kept his wits about him and outside of the festival, he was typically cautious about saying where he was from.
He also pointed out that the Mali government and military took very serious steps to secure the festival, and that the dunes surrounding the stages and campsites were thick with heavily- armed soldiers on the watch for al-Qaida gunmen. At the end of the day, the only dicey moments on his trip were a flat tire while traveling through the Saharan Desert and a bout of food poisoning brought on by some dodgy fried fish.
With the festival coming less than two months after the German tourist’s murder, organizers did their best, as Campos said, to show their appreciation for the few hardened travelers who made their way to the festival.
One of these moments of appreciation was on the final night of the concert, when an MC on stage called for all foreign tourists to come on stage so they could be thanked for the crowd. As Campos filmed, tourists walked across the stage one by one as the MC read their name and called out the name of their home country. Finally, a young Israeli girl named Lola, who Campos met in Ethiopia on the way to the festival, made her way up to the stage. In a scene that Campos said was broadcast live on Mali television, the MC called out “Lola, from Israel,” and the crowd applauded.
The show went on, there were no boos, no shots fired and, watching the video, it appears that no one seemed to care. Minutes earlier, Campos had taken Lola’s picture as she stood in the crowd next to a man in military uniform who they were told was the chief of staff of the Mali Armed Forces.
Looking back on the trip, Campos said that even with the pricey ($1,500) journey by way of Ethiopia, Mali is a place that Israel’s famously intrepid travelers should visit. He added that with Mali’s major benefactor Gaddafi out of the picture, he believes that the anti-Israel sentiment that exists in Mali will decline further.
“It’s for everyone, Mali, not just people who are musicians.”