By Emma Farge
LOMPOUL, Senegal (Reuters) - Encircled by moon-lit sand dunes, desert blues band Tamikrest from Mali's northern city of Kidal was the headline act at a Sahel music festival this weekend, held seemingly light years away from unrest in the group's native country.
The six-man Tuareg band strummed out mellow, hypnotic electric-guitar driven ballads on the themes of suffering and kinship in the local Tuareg language Tamashek.
"Are you sleeping out there?," joked 28-year-old lead singer Ousmane Ag Mossa, his 6-inch (15-cm) tall afro silhouetted against the stage, before switching to more upbeat songs like "Aratan N Tinariwen" that had the bulk of the 1,500-person audience dancing on the sand and crying out for more.
The Tuareg blues band and a West African "griot" storyteller were among the top acts at the fourth Sahel music festival which has gathered momentum as security concerns knocked a Timbuktu event off the calendar for the second year.
Musically rich Mali, which is still struggling to find normality nearly two years after a coup which plunged the country into chaos, was not forgotten by the artists who came to perform in the Lompoul desert in neighbouring Senegal.
Tamikrest, virtually unheard of a few years ago, is building on the popularity of the Grammy-award winning Tuareg band Tinariwen, from the same region of Mali.
They plan a European tour this winter to promote their third album "Chatma", meaning "Sisters", which is about the courage of women.
Blues artists in America drew inspiration from the Sahel and Tamikrest is living proof. Asked in an interview after the concert how he would describe the music, Mossa said: "Nostalgic. It's close to the blues which was also born in difficult circumstances."
He was also inspired by artists like Bob Marley, who similarly told the story of a displaced people through music.
"Education was difficult for us so we turned to music with the same objective - to make our (Tuareg) culture known," the singer said.
"Our battle is to have a place in politics so that things don't happen without our consent," he added.
For the festival's organizer Rafael Rodriguez, the goal of bringing together Sahel musicians was not to dwell on the region's problems, but to transcend them by focusing on the qualities of "tolerance and hospitality".
In keeping with this spirit, the local population can attend the festival for free and they wander in and out of concerts unhindered by fences or walls, mixing with a crowd of middle-class Senegalese and expatriates from the capital Dakar.
Beneath Mauritanian tents, a storyteller tells moral fables inspired by the oral tradition of Senegal's nomadic Fula people as children design artwork from desert sand.
"This festival is my personal revolt against this idea that the Sahel is just a region of catastrophes - migrants, drought, attacks," Rodriguez, a Spaniard who has lived in Senegal for 25 years, told Reuters.
Among the artists invited were singers from the griot caste, known as poets and historians.
Mansour Seck, a blind Senegalese griot dressed in flowing aqua robes known as a "grand boubou", swayed gently as he sang, his face occasionally bursting into a boyish smile.
The lyrics, sung in both Wolof and Fula, recall great harvests and sorrows in the region such as the massacre of Senegalese soldiers at the camp of Thiaroye in 1944 - the increasingly frantic sting-plucking recalling the sounds of gunshots.
Guinean Sekouba Bambino, one of the most famous singers to emerge from the poor West African country, was the last act on the second day of the festival. His performance left little doubt as to why former Guinean president Sekou Toure insisted that the teenager, the son of two griots, join the country's national band Bambeya Jazz.
He thrilled the crowd with songs from his latest album "Innovation", his voice soaring over cascading strings, before switching to a more sombre song which he devoted to the troubles in Mali - his late mother's homeland.
"I'm the son of a Malian and a Guinean. If Mali's heart is not at ease, neither is mine," he said.
(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Heavens)