Various Artists

Forget about Robert Plant. Or better yet, thank him for the wide exposure that his presence on Festival in the Desert will give the mainly African musicians who assembled in northeastern Mali in January 2003 for this music fete. Several of these artists turn in sizzling performances, from Ali Farka Toure's bluesy, guitar-charged "Karaw" to former Toure band member Afel Bocoum's gliding and hypnotic "Buri Baalal" and Oumou Sangaré's passionate "Wayena." French world music gypsies Lo'Jo contribute stirring vocals and dramatic violin on "Jah Kas Cool Boy," a collaboration with Malian singer Django, who further showcases his amazing set of pipes on a cut of his own, "Laisse-Moi Dire." But it's the lesser-known regional bands from Tamashek (a.k.a. Tuareg) that steal the show. Tinariwen's desert boogie suggests John Lee Hooker worked into a frenzy by the Saharan heat. Kel Tin Lokiene illustrates Tamashek culture unplugged on "Ihama," combining breathy, otherworldly vocalizing, and handclaps with a serious party undertone.

There are lots more great moments to be had in these twenty cuts of lovely, restless spirit music, including "Win My Train Fare Home (If I Ever Get Lucky)," a somewhat out-of-place rock performance by Robert Plant and guitarist Justin Adams. But bless the two of them for making the trip to one of the most remote festivals on the planet.

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Bob Tarte