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Various Artists
Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu
Clermont Music, UK

The vision, passion, manpower and logistics that went into making Mali’s Festival in the Desert an annual event from 2001 to 2012 are impressive enough, but the fact that the 2012 edition (relocated from Essakane to Timbuktu) happened at all is most remarkable. By January of that year, much of northern Mali was on the verge of (or already in the throes of) an Islamist insurgency marked by extremists seeking to force a brutal interpretation of sharia law on a Muslim majority that had always preferred religious, cultural and musical freedom. A live, ripped-straight-from-the-board recording of the indomitably spirited 2012 fest is here, and admire for a moment the starkly beautiful black and white photos on the cover and inner fold before you spin the likewise perfectly unadorned music within.

After spoken greetings and a jinn-chasing flute blessing courtesy of Mohamed Alasho, it’s one hypnotic track after another, kicking off with Habib Koite at his guitar-slinging best and including Tartit calling and responding for the cause of “Democratie,” chants by Noura Mint Seymali and Igbayen that mark the locale as the meeting spot of the Islamic and traditional African worlds, plenty of plugged-in desert blues and rock and a ceaseless sense of musical good will for all present and all content to listen to the excitement captured on the playback.

The biggest surprise is Indo-Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia backed by Tinariwen on a version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Mustt Mustt” that’s just as hair-raising vocally in its first half as it is impeccably rocking in its second. Let’s hope the fanatics who are looking to put an end to popular music in Mali are wiped away. In the meantime, get this album and take a glorious listen to what’s at stake. -Tom Orr

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