Sahel Calling : A Film and Project

In February 2013, the well-known Festival au Désert will commence its 13th year of gathering together artists from Mali, other African countries and the rest of the world, to delight one another through the exchange of music, art and cultural activities. The existence of the festival stems from an old tradition of Tuaregs, an ethnic group from Northern Mali, who met annually in the Timbuktu region to reconnect after the nomadic season. Each year since 2001, when the current festival format was established, it seems to attract more and more attention as the alluring rhythmic sounds and patterns of West African music continues to reach wider audiences and participants (including the likes of Bono, Robert Plant and Jimmy Buffet).

This coming year, however, the festival organizers and musicians are forced to plan and create music in the face of an immense humanitarian crisis and socio-political conflict in Mali and the Sahel. Despite the militant occupation in the north which bans the creation and enjoyment of music (even Tuareg music is banned in Tuareg land), and despite the widespread shortage of food and water, musicians will continue to sing.

How this unfolds and the story of those extraordinary people who are trying to remedy this crisis, re-unite an entire country and call for the stopping of human rights violations -- through song and music -- is the basis of a documentary film called Sahel Calling. The film will follow the Festival au Désert's musical caravan (due to the instability and violence of the region, the festival will not be held in Timbuktu this year) through Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso.

The inspiration for the film came from producer Kathryn Werntz's appreciation for the role musicians have played, particularly since the '70s, in using political lyrics to raise awareness about the tensions in the north of Mali and general struggles and corruption throughout the country. But since the March 2012 coup d'état, the silence from the international musical community about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Mali became nearly deafening to her. And so she started probing into the silence, asking why, and exploring the role of musicians during such times.

In an article published in Songlines (Issue #8, Nov/Dec 2012), Werntz interviews internationally known West African musicians, such as the "Songbird of Mali" Oumou Sangaré and Habib Koité, UNICEF's Ambassador to Mali, and others, outlining a situation that is far from straight forward, with answers that are not singular. She writes, "... as with Malian music, the path to peace is bound to be complex, multi-layered, polyphonic if you will." Yet it seems that most of the musicians she interviewed would agree with Oumou's perspective: "We sing about what the politicians will not say. We must sing for those people who have no voice."

The intentions behind Sahel Calling are not political, but rather humanitarian and will attempt to capture, through the voice of musicians, the sentiment, as above, that seeks to shine light on those in need, such as refugees, internally-displaced-peoples (IDPs) and conflict-affected persons in the north.

The Project will offer two films, extra footage of concerts and interviews along the caravan and in villages and refugee camps, and will donate partial proceeds from the full-length documentary (to be released in November 2013) to refugee assistance programs of UNHCR, Oxfam and Instruments4Africa.

Click here to read an interview with Werntz about her personal connection to Mali and the impetus for creating the film.

If you are interested in joining the project, think about any of the following:

1) Liking the Facebook community page.

2) Being friends with the profile page.

3) Following or tweeting them, or tweet @sahelcalling.

4) Submitting questions that you think they should ask the musicians during the film (found on our "Get Involved" page of the website.

Keep your eyes out for the official press release and a short video teaser shot in Mali in September 2012.