Hubert von Goisern in Mali: Waiting for Timbuktu

June 2005 | Text: Hubert von Goisern | Photos: Bernhard Flieher

Hubert von Goisern in MaliMali had been on the bill back in 2002, together with Senegal, Burkina Faso, the Cape Verde islands and the Ivory Coast. But you don't always get what you want, certainly not in Africa. Apart from that, as the Dalai Lama said, "sometimes it's good when you don't get what you want". Or as it says just as appropriately in a song by the Stones?

"you can't always get what you want,
but if you try some, you get what you need"

So at the end of 2004 I got what I needed: an invitation to the Festival au Desert 2005, northwest of Timbuktu, at the beginning of January 2005. At the same time, I wanted (and want) to withdraw in 2005 and 2006 and release myself from everything one understands as "public". On the other hand, at the end of a 5 years touring and production phase, playing my (?) music in the desert of Essakane one last time was too appealing, and I can just go by the Tibetan calendar, where the new year does not begin until February...

When Africa has you, it doesn't let you go.

Africa - cradle of humanity - beginning of everything;
and the end too, because it is said that the end of the world is in Timbuktu.

Africa - it's like a great love that is often not reciprocated (at least so it seems to me); a test for the fortitude of my ideals and dreams, my Utopia of a global, solid, respectful society.

Always when I wrongly believe myself to be at the end of my capacity for love: gifts. Africa is that too.
But I don't want gifts, I want justice. I am also against the "presents" that go to Africa, in the form of weapons, credits, development aid etc - I am not against gifts in general, but when the relationship is not even, the recipient loses their feeling of self worth - they are ashamed and humbled.

We (?) only need to pay appropriate prices for the resources which are stolen every day from this continent (and other Third World countries).

The colonialism and proselytising is like the Third Reich. One is ashamed of others.

Africa - chosen, exploited and bled to death by adventurers, fraudsters and slave traders. In the name of God, in Allah's as in Christ's. Buddha has not (yet) come to Africa. Or has he?

Europe / Munich. At the airport, Air France are the first to hold out their hands. We are 11 passengers and have about 8kg per person too much. Debating doesn't help, despite original promises of not having to pay excess baggage for instruments and equipment, we must cough up €1400. I float the idea of turning around. Embarrassed faces on my travelling companions. I pay. In Mali I discover from holidaymakers (!), who also flew with Air France, that they only had to pay €10 per kg. Memories of my West Africa tour in 2002 surface. There was no accommodation for musicians back then either - on the contrary. The thought occurs that as a non-Francophone artist, one is not wanted in the sovereign territory of the grand nation. For that is how one views West Africa from Paris. Not a nice thought, so I push it aside, there it waits for the next opportunity.

Once we are finally sitting in the aeroplane, I have an unpleasant feeling. I hope that it isn't an omen, but rather just worry. I conquer it. It is the daily conflict with thoughts of security, with comfort, with lethargy ...

After two glasses of red wine I am resigned to my destiny and can now only feel the anticipation of the adventure that lies ahead of me. What comes will come, inshallah - your will be done!

While we glide over the Iberian peninsula in the setting sun, I see Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries on the screen in front of me - here too: despite injustice and adversity, the freedom of travelling prevails. So it should.

As we fly over Marrakech, the western horizon is now only an unending long, dark red line over which the seemingly motionless aeroplane hangs. Weightless like my thoughts.

Next morning - Bamako - din, dust, dirt, heat, endless traffic jams. But everyone seems relaxed. I follow their example, slow my steps and also my thoughts.

The first hurdle is to sort out the transport to Timbuktu and on to the festival. Despite arrangements made by phone and in writing, everything is different. The organiser, Mohamed Ali Ansar, presents a bill which goes into thousands of Euros. The festival has no money, sponsors have backed out, the costs are exploding etc. We are in Africa, everything is negotiable, everybody tries to line their own pockets as well as they can.

"All highwaymen and tramps," asserts a European who has lived in Mali for 25 years. I ask him why he's still there. There would be no going back for him. There isn't for anybody. Time and again we must all summon the courage to look forward and to step forward, and to leave something behind us - sometimes the end itself. There are dishonest people everywhere, in every nation, in every class.

Whoever says that poor people are more honest than rich is lying to himself.

It is not dishonourable to have someone over the barrel. You earn respect through dogged bargaining. But I have only just arrived, the climate change, the malaria prophylaxis, the sleep deprivation ... and apart from that, I don't like haggling, in my eyes it is worthless to demand more than necessary and to pay less than demanded.

I am distracted and exhausted. Tiredness and disinterest envelop me. I feel it and see it in Ali's eyes that he is dropping me in it. He knows I've come too far to want to turn round. What should I do? I want to play. And tomorrow the flight goes to Timbuktu I have to decide quickly and so I persuade myself that everything will even out, that there is also a karmic justice in Africa, or something like it. I pay.

One day later. We should actually already be in the air, but a sandstorm came up in the night. It is 10am. I have dropped the malaria prophylaxis and feel better. We hang around in the hotel lobby with our instruments and everything you need to overnight in the desert; water containers, sleeping bags, warm clothes, torches etc.

It should clear in the afternoon. We go to the airport and check in.

The wind and visibility is only imperceptibly better and the Kirghiz pilot refuses to take off. There is hectic telephoning because a government official who is also on the flight doesn't think it's so bad and tries to put pressure on the pilot via some governmental department. Images of Flight of the Phoenix shoot through my head. The pilot evades further discussions by simply going home. I like him.


A new day, a new attempt. This time it works. With us in the 30-seater aeroplane are Habib Koite and his musicians. If we crash over the desert, we could start up a super session in Nirvana. The machine is brimful. Pieces of luggage and instruments tower in the luggage rack and between the seats. The Russian flight attendant nevertheless climbs ably over all obstacles with her tray and serves hot tea and coffee. One of the few Europeans asks, with British politeness, for herbal tea, which of course isn't available. The same person is later seen in the desert camp trying in vain to get something vegetarian to eat.

After a one and half hour flight through a red and yellow sky, over a red and yellow landscape without contours, the undercarriage rumbles over the runway of Timbuktu. After another luggage orgy we continue with jeeps. First of all there are more discussions with the drivers wanting the money for their services that has already been taken from us by festival management in Bamako. The next day, we discover that they were fobbed off too. (It's said that suffering shared is suffering halved - and there's something in that.)

Hubert von Goisern's tentThe 70km journey is an experience in itself, there are no roads, just a track and sometimes not even that. The Landcruiser wallows in shifting sands, jumps over dunes, bangs into holes that suddenly appear, whipped by undergrowth we speed past scattered camels, herds of goats and herdsmen. At 2pm we are at our destination. Among the dunes stands a sand-coloured tent city and a little apart from it, the festival stage. We ask around until someone looks after us and allocates the sleeping places, two tents, which each sleep 4 (comfortably) to 5 (uncomfortably) people. But there are 12 of us! Then the next "slaps": although it is planned for the following day, and is likewise communicated on all advertisements, we are to play in 5 hours at 7pm.

I am too exhausted to put up any resistance. So we go to work and set up. The equipment is so desolate that we can only practise damage limitation. It borders on a miracle that my technicians, Spani, Balou and Hannes get the whole lot to play.
The concert itself lasts an hour. It buzzes, hisses, rattles and bangs away, there's always something missing, cutting out again and again, at times the bass, then the vocals or the accordion, we as good as can't hear each other and I needed all my concentration to hold the band together. With the best will in the world, I couldn't enjoy it. It was enough to make you want to run away.

Later in the night, I lie in the sand and look to the stars. It is the same sky as at home, just another detail, it is the same world just another continent. The question of what I'm doing here doesn't arise. I am there. That's the way it is. That's that!
The next day I use the time look around. People approach me, speak to us, both Tuaregs and Europeans, to thank and congratulate us. They thought the music was wonderful and the sound(!) - incredible, it was apparently the best of the whole festival.

Have I the right to be unhappy?

Yes, just as much as I have the right to bang my head against a wall. Nothing comes from it but a bruise.

Nevertheless, during an interview for Mali TV, I don't hold back with my criticism of the organisation. But I am, thank God, not the only one for whom the festival is suspicious. The American singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, as well as Mali's superstars Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita have not come, despite being prominently advertised. Their names are nevertheless shamelessly advertised to the very last.
Only Marlene, my violinist, is unreservedly keen. But that's probably down to the fact that wherever she appears, half a dozen Tuaregs lie at her feet, one carries her bag, one her violin, one brings her food ...

The high point of the final evening is Desert Blues, a kind of Mali Allstar band with Habib Koite. Music like the landscape from which it grew - soft, repetitive, and yet always lightly varied, seemingly endless melodic arcs, performed with natural virtuosity and musical passion.

The next morning at sunrise we dismantle the tent and back we go through the disorienting landscape to Timbuktu.

At the airport, Ali Ansar confronts me with an additional demand. €200 still has to be paid for petrol. Now my chain breaks. I get an interpreter and have it repeatedly translated that I consider him a fraudster, dishonest and incompetent, and that he is a disgrace to the festival, his country and his people ... Without contradiction, he forgoes any further money and says he is too exhausted to want to discuss it any further and moves away in a sulk. As we go across the taxiway to the plane a little later, he holds his hand out to me with a smile, thanks me and wishes me a good journey. Astonishingly, a light-footed "au revoir" escapes me. See you again?


Bamako - I lie on the bed and listen. Street sounds, sheep bleating, the buzz of the air-conditioning, a train goes past ... disappointment in my heart, exhaustion in my limbs, blankness in my mind. When we entered the air-conditioned airport hall in Bamako, the bassist from the Desert Blues band, a local, said: "back to civilisation, thank God!" I don't share his relief. I would love to have remained up in the desert. But we still have another three days in Mali. This can't be it yet. Annoyed, I turn the air-conditioning off and get up. As I look out of the window at the street traders I have an idea, or rather, I have two. I ring the number of the Austrian consul.

A little later at the bar, over a glass of Pastice, I ask him to organise a club in which we could play the evening after next, without a fee, just for food and drink. And - I want to meet Kele Tigi, the brilliant balaphone player and excellent violinist. He had already attracted my attention at the festival, on the return flight we sat next to each other and exchanged a few words. He lives in Bamako and I want to ask him to play with us.

The next morning, we embark on our search. We ask around until we reach his house. We talk a little about the key and tuning of the instruments. Both, his balaphone and my accordion too, are diatonic. I begin to play a Steirer - he pricks up his ears, listens a while and out of nothing begins to play the craziest things to it, it works like a dream. He agrees to come to "Akwaba" the next evening and asks if there is a fee, he has 40 people to support. I tell him no, we are not getting paid either, but I promise to come up with something.

It was a wonderful evening. Even Mali TV came and recorded the concert. And at the end when we gave Kele a mutton as a present, which he took home with him strapped to his instrument in the open boot of his taxi, the final tension released. Finally something like accord and harmony with the country which we had already been travelling for ten days.

After a very short night it came to packing and departure.

The goodbye meal took place in a restaurant with live music. And there, unexpectedly, what I have always dreamed of happened. We were just paying and making a move when completely unspectacularly and almost incidentally, an unbelievable band began to play. They played a blues like I have never heard before and which was yet at the same time so familiar and expressed exactly what I was feeling. All my worries, hopes, joys and doubts became sounds. Without thinking, I unpacked my accordion one last time, went to the microphone and embraced the whole world singing and dancing.

Au revoir - I'll be coming again!

Hubert von Goisern

P.S. Sand or snow, dunes or glacial ice - Tuaregs or Saamis, camels or reindeer, heat or cold - everything has an opposite and an equal. Everything is rhizomatous - scattered but hanging together, connected to each other.

You find sand from the Sahara in the Dachstein glacier too - accordingly, our music in the desert; like a scattered seed which only briefly shows its bloom in one night.

I want to go back there! I want to go to Mali again. That can't have been it.

I don't know when and under which circumstances - perhaps new seeds were sown, by us or within us - and are just waiting for a few drops of water;

Water of curiosity,
Water of affection,
Water of friendship,
Water of love.

P.P.S.: Warten auf Timbuktu (Waiting for Timbuktu) is also the name of the film of our adventure in Mali. It will be out in the autumn.


Appendix: Timbuktu - or, as it is written here: Tombouctou, lay not too long ago by the Niger river, which now runs 15km south. Loam-smeared, two-storey houses, built directly onto the sand, which also serves as the floor on the bottom storey. Three mosques, the oldest of which was built in 1325, serve as orientation when exploring the confusing, narrow, crooked alleys, through which motorbikes without number plates meander from time to time, even one car or another rumbles through the sleepy city.

For centuries Timbuktu was the centre of learning and trade, point of departure and terminal for all the caravans through the Sahara, collection point for the goods which came from the far north of the great desert, from the Mediterranean countries, as well as goods from central Africa. In the 11th century, the area was converted by the Almoravides (Islamic reformists) and Muslim dealers.

At the high point of the kingdom of Mali, in 1224, the regent at that time, "Kankan (Mansa) Moussa", went on a pilgrimage, a Hajj to Mecca. With no fewer than 60,000 men, each loaded with a gold bar, he moved northeast. In Cairo he paid the Sultan a visit and spent some much gold that the Egyptian gold market completely fell apart and needed 10 years to recover. So it is no wonder that 150 years ago, the story went that houses in Timbuktu were gilded inside and out. Attracted by such stories, there were time and again attempts by European adventurers and travellers to penetrate Timbuktu.

The first to manage it was a Scot: Major Alexander Gordon Laing. As boldly as arrogantly, he reached the city steeped in legend in 1826, in British uniform, with silk stockings, white breeches and a gold braided jacket, he stayed a few weeks and was killed on his return journey by nomadic Tuaregs, who supposedly felt threatened when he went bird-hunting with his rifle.

In the meantime, the French geographical society promised 10,000 Francs to he who managed to make it to Timbuktu. One who wanted to know it was René Chaillié, he spent 9 months on the Senegal river in order to study the Koran and Arabic and reached his destination - "a depressing city of badly built loam huts" - disguised as a Muslim in 1828. Back in Paris, he was on the one hand showered with honours, but they did not want to believe his achievement, as it did not fit with the romantic world view at that time. Sceptics even alleged that he had never even been in Timbuktu. He died, not yet 40 years old, from the strains of the journey.

Heinrich Barth, a German in the service of the British government, also brought personal tidings from Timbuktu, which he reached in September 1853, in the course of his 5 year crossing of the Sahara. He stayed 8 months, learned Tamashek, the language of the Tuaregs, studied the old Arabic writings that lie in the Koran schools and finally by a miracle escaped an assassination attempt by a group of fighters. When their leader suddenly and mysteriously died just before the assassination, nobody dared question Barth's presence any more. His reputation is untouched to this day and the house in which he lived is now a museum.