Off the Record

Sultans of Sand: Photo Exhibit of Saharan Guitar Nomads Tinariwen Opens at Fix Gallery

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Thu, Apr 22, 2010 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Sultans_of_Sand_Invite_.jpg
In February, the nomadic band of Malian guitarists Tinariwen wandered into Los Angeles and spawned a dance party, Saharan-style. On Saturday, the Fix Gallery will present images of Tinariwen from their remote "Festival in the Desert," taken by entertainment manager and photographer, Jonathan Brandstein.

"My trips usually begin with the idea of discovering places, with a "special sound," Brandstein says. "Traveling is my passion and I made my first trip to Mali in 2006. I headed into the Sahara and was fortunate enough to see Tinariwen at the then little known 'Festival au Desert.'"

There at the Coachella of North Africa, Brandstein captured images of the enigmatic musicians in their home amid the dunes and desert sun.

After the jump watch Brandstein's video of his journey into the desert and read about his one-of-a-kind experience with sound and sand.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BRANDSTEIN
  • Jonathan Brandstein

Vanity Fair contributor, and former president/C.E.O. of Viacom, Tom Freston wrote about meeting Brandstein in the Sahara in 2007. Brandstein also wrote about his own experience for (BLOG) RED.

I hope this video gives people a feel for our trip, which was featured in Tom Freston's article for Vanity Fair, "Showtime in the Sahara." I shot all the footage during the trip. I hope you get a sense of the journey that one takes when going to Timbuktu and Essakane, (home of the Festival In the Desert). Most of those attending the festival arrive by camel; we did it in SUVs. In his article, Tom accurately describes the journey by saying "the ride shakes us to the bone." Despite the rattling, bumps and getting stuck in the sand, the landscape is visually stunning. You'll notice that the environment isn't consistent. One thing I didn't expect was the ever-changing topography - driving in the Sahara you see crystal white sand dunes, transitioning to patches of tamarisk trees followed by giant dry lake beds that eventually fade back to sand. Everything except a man-made structure or shelter for miles. An image that remained with me long after the trip was the sight of a lone nomad walking through the Sahara with a flock of goats, with nothing but sand dunes in front of him. Life is hard out there.

Four and a half hours later we get to the festival. Living up to expectation, one of the first things that we saw was the arrival of a band of Tuaregs by camel. You quickly realize you've arrived someplace special. Next I had my camera rolling while uber-photographer Jonas Karlsson was trying to capture Habib Koite. While Jonas was working I managed to get his producer Ron Beinner to give us his thoughts. Later I ask Habib what he thinks of the festival, his response sums it up best: "This place, crazy place. You can lose yourself here." He is an amazing performer and mesmerizing. The long shot of him singing "Cigarette Abana" I actually shot last year, but it was the very song that turned me into a huge fan. The last shot in the video is of Rachid, an amazing young guy from Morocco that I met at Essakane. I turned the camera on him and he started telling me that he hitchhiked from Casablanca to get to the festival. It took him 12 days to hitchhike through the Sahara. No small feat. However, what amazed me more was when he told me his guiding principle. This was an unexpected but sublime response. It also shows the power of music...

Most people think the Festival in the Desert is just a music festival. It isn't. In fact, it's much more. Since the inhabitants or Tuaregs of the Sahara are nomadic, their way of life depends of having "gatherings." Many things happen here: settling of differences, trading, marriages; and at night, in the true spirit of coming to together, they play music. In the last several years the outside world has been invited to participate in this event. The result is the ability for Tuaregs to improve their way of life and export their culture to a global audience. While it might be the most remote music festival on the planet, it does not lack talent. An assortment of musicians, with boundless talent to match.

--Jonathan Brandstein

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