‘Tamarisk and the Raven’ – mainstage at Festival in the Desert – under a full moon and a lunar eclipse

She moves through the fair – representing the music of these sea washed islands with fiddle, bagpipes and voice

Press piece

All photos courtesy of Jonathan Day

Interviews & Guest Posts

An archaeology of the soul – Jonathan Day on Festival Taragalte 

by Jonathan Day 11 October, 2023

I’ve enjoyed Jonathan Day‘s music for a long time now – going back to his 2010 Carved in Bone album. Since then, we have reviewed his music, interviewed him and invited him to write the occasional guest article. This month, he is heading to Morocco, where he will perform with his band under the starry skies of M’hamid El Ghizlane, a small oasis town that hosts Festival Taragalte (27th – 29th October 2023). In the following article, Jonathan talks about his previous experience of the festival, the recent Marrakesh–Safi region earthquake, the importance of tourism in these regions and more.

Alex Gallacher

Jonathan Day on Festival Taragalte

On September 9th this year, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit the High Atlas mountains, 70 km southwest of Marrakech in Morocco. It’s easy to forget sometimes in our hurly-burly that we live on a molten ball of rock hurtling through space – with a nano thickness of crust – like new green ice on a lake or the crunchy covering on a crème brulee. When the promethean gurglings of all that liquid rock get too much, the crust shifts. It’s normal and astonishing in its own indifferent way – natural and even, to a degree, predictable. For the people living on these tectonic margins, it is terror and disaster – leaving them with the kind of devastation more often associated with war zones. That is what happened to the people of the High Atlas, who tragically lost loved ones and livelihoods and whose homes and villages were reduced to rubble. 

In really stark contrast, a long way to the south of the Atlas and far away from the devastation is Taragalte, the site of the festival in the desert. Taragalte is also often called the ‘festival beneath the stars’ because of the stunning clarity of the desert night skies, and ‘festival of the wisdom of the nomads’ since the music there is mostly of the desert, from Saharouine, Tuareg and other pastoralists, and from the Draa people who cultivate date palms and vegetables where the Draa river seeps into the desert, unseen beneath the sand.  

Earlier this year – before the earthquake – my band and I were booked to play there as one of a few bands invited to represent the music of ‘elsewhere’. It’s a real privilege – and both a thrill and a responsibility. Hearing of the devastation to the north left us with uncertainties. Playing music in a strange, fascinating and beautiful environment is a thing of fun and joy – and it can also be profoundly moving on occasions for the band and, hopefully, for the listeners. When we heard the news of the quake, we instantly wanted to help if we could, but without knowing exactly how. We’re just a band, after all: we’re not aid workers or trained rescue personnel. Nor are we especially rich. Given the tragedy, we wondered would it be thoughtless of us to go, or worse, disrespectful to those who were mourning. 

I spoke to my Saharouine friend Ali Laghfiri, who lives near Taragalte. He is a nomadic pastoralist who is now working as a desert guide. He said:

The roads down to the desert are clear, and everyone here still needs people to visit for us to live. We are all standing together during these difficult times. Morocco needs travellers more than ever to help recover from this human and material tragedy.   

Ali’s father lost his herds to drought. Their centuries-old way of life has become untenable in this generation – and the tragedy of that change is palpable in Ali’s father’s eyes. Inspiringly, nevertheless, the desert people are surviving by adaptation – as is their vital and fascinating culture. So, although not directly affected by the earth tremors, this desert civilisation so badly hit by climate change and human interference with natural systems is also now at risk from the earthquake’s fallout. If the visitors who are so relied upon stop coming, it could easily fall into oblivion, as so many others have before. 

Ibrahim, the artistic director of Taragalte, emphasised this in the festival’s official response:

It is with deep respect for our country and a strong desire to support our community that we announce that the 12th edition of the Taragalte festival will be continuing. We warmly invite you to join us at Taragalte Festival, that not only celebrates art and culture but is also a means of supporting the local economy and culture.  

So we were decided – the festival would go on, and we would be there as part of it. Ours will, at best, be a nano contribution – but I guess it’s what we have and what we can do. Sometimes, perhaps the best we can offer is to stand beside people and give them our support. 

Our brief is to play our polyglot music, emphasising especially contemporary nomadism and how the music of our northern seawashed island homes relates and has kinship with the music of their enormous desert expanse. Coming with me are Fluff (from the Incredible String Band, Thea Gilmore, Radcliffe & Co, The Reads and Tower Struck Down) on fiddle, pipes and bass, and multi-instrumental phenomenon Eddie Ogle on kit, guitar and bass.  

Festival in the desert has drawn me since I first heard of its predecessor in Mali. I flew over the Sahara as a nine-year-old boy – at dawn – and was enraptured. Looking out with those wide eyes of childhood, I saw beneath me at first light luminous scarlett crescents, slashing the lingering, lampless blackness. They seemed to go on forever and were a revelation – an epiphany. Realising that somehow this beauty and I were connected, somehow the same, affected me deeply – serving as a foundational moment, one of those formative experiences/memories that are always more or less there with us, hanging out in the subterranea of our everyday. 

The original Malian Festival in the desert was close to Timbuktu. Its fabulous syncretic music ranged from the then newly coined ‘desert blues’ played by bands like Tinariwen to ancient and ancestral sounds running as deeply and profoundly as the underground rivers – and scaffolding so many more familiar musical forms. Attention came too because of its celebrity attendees – Bono raising eyebrows as he flew there in his private jet, Robert Plant looking for inspiration for his and Jimmy Page’s African reworkings of Led Zeppelin’s songs. The festival website describes it as currently ‘in exile’ due to factionalism and widespread conflict in the area and not least because of the kidnapping for ransom of a number of visitors. Some of those factions are also murderously opposed to art, literature and music. Journalist Joshua Hammer wrote his excellent The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu about this, and while fully engaging with the terror and horrors of those times, he also highlights the really incredible bravery and commitment of the underground librarians who risked their lives to save millennia’s worth of irreplaceable scrolls from the fires of Al Qaeda. Similarly, Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film Timbuktu is also worth watching – if you haven’t seen it – for an idea of how it might feel to live under such oppression. 

I personally heard about Taragalte – a newer incarnation of the festival in the desert – from an English friend with connections in the Moroccan Sahara. As a result, last year, my son and I decided to travel there as a scoping exercise, to meet the people and play a short set at charity Playing for Change’s local music school. 

Arriving in Marrakech, we found Morrocco exactly the explosion of colour and chaos we’d hoped for. Twisting around in the thin and complex Medina streets – every turn seemed full of things new and unexpected. Smells and sounds so intriguing – rose, lavender and jasmine filling the air as the high, thin microtonal ghaita musically wailed alongside the deep bass rumblings of the guembri. Perhaps more than anything else, it was the brilliant light that impressed – after the greyness of a northern autumn, it painted everything so intensely. 

We bussed down into the desert, spending ten and a half actually very comfortable and fascinating hours at the front of an air-con coach. We crossed the snow-covered High Atlas and drove out into the astonishing formations of the very different – and ancient – Anti Atlas range. We arrived finally after dark at the literal end of the road, in M’Hamid el Ghizlane. I really like that this is the nearest settlement to the current festival site, it being the northern end of the trans-Saharan camel trade route that has its origins far to the south in Timbuktu. It’s the first village the camel trains would have seen after two months in the sand. There is, therefore, a kind of symmetry.  

For us, too, it was time to take to the camels ­– for our final leg out into the Sahara.  

The desert took me by surprise. At first, we crossed a kilometres-wide belt of formerly cultivated fields – the desperate proof of desertification. My son thought they looked like deserted city car parks. Soon enough, though, we were out into the sand proper. There was an intense, brilliant silence, the only sound the wind in the occasional mint green ‘shusra’ tree. These are surprisingly frequent in the notional draa river valley, where storm rains still seep unseen beneath our feet, despite their evisceration at the hands of dams built far to the north to serve water-hungry towns like Ouzarate – the so-called ‘HoIlywood of the Sahara’.  

The desert is a powerful place, impressing itself deeply into dreams and memories. It’s also unexpectedly full of joy. The amaranth sunsets – crepuscular beams filling the sky as the autumn sun sets far away to the south, all the way across Western Sahara. The company of jerboa, ravens and desert larks – creatures caught hiding in desiccated bushes, startled as we passed them by at the inexorable speed of camels. The way everything settles for the night – the promise of cool air, the companionship of the sleeping creatures and the billion stars pinpricking the night. 

It’s a place of intense contrasts. The stultifying heat of the afternoon to the winter coat coldness of the deep night – the silence so pervasive and profound that it will stay with me like a treasure – the susurrating hum of dry leaves in the wind and the croak of a raven against the figured bass of silence. I tried to describe it in my song A Garden Among the Stones. Sitting on the bough of a desert tamarisk, I experienced such a deep sense of belonging and home in a place that is indifferently deadly for the ill-considered and unprepared.  https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=4022044023/size=small/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/artwork=none/track=3402813382/transparent=true/

We rode and walked through extensive groves of Calotropis Procera – a desert plant whose seeds have been wind-carried from Arabia. An attractive-looking small tree, its seeping milk-like sap (our guides told us) is a deadly poison. If touched to the eyes, blindness will be certain. We did not expect to ride camels through a poison forest – it is the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales. 

No surprise, then, that Festival in the Desert, too, is a place of contrasts. It is chaotic, fractious, beautiful, dangerous, comical – but most of all, for so much of the time, utterly sublime. There were personal and factional disputes certainly – as there are in most gatherings – and on one occasion, these even brought a performance to a close. We didn’t see the ruckus, but it was quite a thing watching half the gathered crowd running pell-mell into the dunes to spectate or participate in the presumed melee. There was, moreover, intense friendliness – genuine heartwarming interactions with honest, sincere people as sublime sounds travelled out into the desert – on what saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter calls a ‘Grace Wave’. This is a festival at the very edge of the possible and certainly over the edge of the wild. Despite power outages and unaccountable programming changes, more than anything, I remember the incandescent sounds – rising towards the pin-bright stars and reverberating out across the continent-wide sands of the Sahara.  

Stand-out performances for me personally were the ancient, deeply evocative and unaccountably familiar Moroccan Jewish songs of Lala Tamar, accompanied by Ofer Ronan. The remnants of Andalusia are still powerfully present in Morocco, where Jewish Megorashim and Maghrebim music blends with Arabic and Berber traditions. As Miika and I sat in a Bedouin tent café, every note of the performance seemed perfect – the microtonal melodies moving beautifully and with ancient certainty from pitch to pitch. For me, it felt like something was opened up – I can only compare it to discovering a lost and unimagined heritage or family line. Music as the archaeology of the soul. I remain to this day changed by the experience – I think it was probably the most perfect performance I have seen. Ensemble Bilali Soudan were also beautifully composed as they played the deeply sophisticated and ancient formal music of Mali. Over all, this was the sound of desert guitar – a style that hooked itself under my ribs and has remained there ever since – the sound of being in a great silence beneath a universe of stars. It gives form to place and time and speaks more eloquently than anything else of the desert people’s here and now. As you see (and I say this with a smile), I’ve pretty much run out of words.  

We came looking to open up ourselves and our music – open the windows and let in the light. As T S Elliot wrote in his Four Quartets – the purpose of travel is to return to the place you started and see it for the first time. And this we did.  

Heading back north across the desert, we walked the ancient Cambrian and Ordovician seafloor, now re-exposed and bizarrely covered in shells and the other traces of the start of life. We reached M’Hamid and saw now from the desert side this front-line town dancing with the sand. Though the settled agriculturist Draa people still tend their fields of vegetables and extensive palmeries, the sense of sand is everywhere – the vital, extensively creatured, unpredictable desert lying curled like a sleeping fennec fox, tangled around their feet. With no idea at all when it will stir and strike. 

Continuing, we eventually reached the Atlantic coast, where we found more of the musical remnants of Al Andalus alongside the works of the Phoenicians. It’s almost impossible after the desert to describe the profound joy of sea wind and the sound of waves – the presence of water to which, living in the Welsh hills and looking out as I write at a thick rain-grey sky, I am usually no stranger. Wandering, wide-eyed, in the noisy, oblivious streets, we comically felt something like holy men returned from a pilgrimage. Road-dirty and full of grace … 

I sequenced this year’s album ‘Sakura’ (reviewed here on Folk Radio) on the trip – starting on a rooftop in Marrakech, above vendor cries and calls to prayer. It was consolidated in a desert garden, in the shade of morning glory, orange, castor oil and pomegranate trees, and finally finished off among warm Phoenician stones and the pounding of waves.  

Who knows what music will grow from this trip for us or what the future is for all the forms of desert music celebrated at Taragalte? I suppose we cannot ever do more than a tiny something in the scheme of things – our only possibility, I suspect, is to engage with those who cross our paths. Charity Playing for Change has set up a music school in M’Hamid to try to help preserve the fragile traditional cultures of a way of life that is challenged to the point of probably ending. I’ve played there and listened to the wonderful young bands that are the fruit of their work. Hopefully, the instruments and computer we’ll leave with them will add a thread to the work they are weaving. I hope too that our journey and performance will contribute in some small way – sending out into the desert night (if we get it right), like Bilali Soudan, Lala Tamar and Ofer Ronan, Generation Taragalte and Tinariwen before us, our own ‘wave of grace’.