To Timbuktu and Back (Literally): Jonathan Brandstein Showcases Photos of Saharan Desert Musicians at Scottsdale's Method Art Gallery

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It's not hard to get Jonathan Brandstein going. All you need to do is bring up music and travel -- two things many people are head over heels about -- and he's like a freshly discharged jack-out-of-the-box telling all sorts of amazing tales of the places he's been and the musicians he's seen perform.

The Los Angeles-based photographer takes globetrotting and concert going to near-cosmic levels. Instead of cozy timeshares on some Caribbean paradise, Brandstein brings an open mind, his cameras, and a sponge-like love of music to places like Mali, West Africa, The Republic of Cape Verde, and Afghanistan.

"I generally pick the places I want to go because of the music. You don't go to Cape Verde for vacation," says Brandstein about the remote Atlantic Ocean island located more than 350 miles from Western Africa. "Just about all of the trips I've done were to discover the music. The pictures are an extension of it."

One of these music-seeking adventures is documented in Brandstein's solo photography exhibition "The Sultans of Sand," currently on display at Method Art Gallery & Studios in Scottsdale. The works in this show chronicle the band Tinariwen at the Festival Au Desert -- arguably the most outlying music festival in the world -- that takes place two hours from Timbuktu in Essakane, Mali. The place, according to Brandstein, isn't a town but rather a piece of sandy Sahara Desert land that most attendees arrive at by camel. (A sign of Essakane's remoteness: Amplifiers were powered by car batteries.)

It's also, explains Brandstein, where some of the best music on this planet takes place. "If music is in the blood in West Africa, it's in the DNA of Mali," says Brandstein, who traveled to the nearly-impossible-to-arrive-at destination two different instances to soak up the sounds and to photograph.

Many of the images in "Sultans" capture the happening through portraits of the desert-nomadic Tuareg group members of Tinariwen as well as camel-traveling festivalgoers. One non-Tuareg attendee, Brandstein recalls, hitchhiked from Casablanca, Morocco, for nearly two weeks just to hear the music of West Africa and beyond.

Aside from his Scottsdale show, Brandstein is keeping busy with a new series. Last year, he one-upped his Malian adventure by tagging along with Afghanistan's National Army to the Panjshir Valley, a strategically important area during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. While hanging out in the Middle East/Southeast Asia, he snapped shots of rusty Russian tanks and helicopters as well as Afghan Army soldiers on patrol.

"I was constantly reminded of history more than any other place I've been," says Brandstein. "The people there who got rid of the Taliban are very proud and fiercely independent. And the terrain is incredible. Some parts look like you're on the moon. Others look like Aspen [Colorado] if it wasn't developed."

"The Sultans of Sand" is currently on display through September 30, at Method Art Gallery & Studios (formerly ArtSpace on Sixth), 4142 North Marshall Way in Scottsdale. Tonight, Brandstein will be in attendance during an artist's reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Tonight's sale proceeds will benefit the local non-profit organization Arizona Consortium for the Arts. Admission is free. Call 480-423-0888 or see www.artspaceonsixth.com.

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