It’s a searingly hot June afternoon, with the temperature into the 40s, but there’s a huge crowd at the racetrack for the open-air concert. Abazar Hamid, a slight man in a grey skullcap and a jalabiya with billowing sleeves, is standing on a podium waving his microphone as he belts out tunes that have the audience hooting with joy.

Hamid, one of the country’s best-known singers, sings Sudanese folk fused with a strong dose of African reggae and a beat that gets men, women and children dancing on the track beneath him. The line that really gets them is the chorus, repeated again and again: “Fee Sudan jadeed!” (There is a new Sudan!). He closes with his most popular, rabble-rousing number, “Salam Darfur” (Peace for Darfur), and then leaves the stage mobbed by fans.

Welcome to the 2008 Ad Da’en Equestrian & Arts Festival in South Darfur, where music, sport and literature come together in an effort to bring an end to one of the most ruinous wars of recent years.

Spread across a mostly arid plateau the size of France, Darfur is Sudan’s westernmost and most impoverished state. Of its population of 6m, made up of African and Arab tribes, about one-third live in refugee camps. These people have been displaced by a conflict that began in 2003 and has cost as many as 300,000 lives, according to United Nations estimates (the Sudanese government claims 10,000).

The three-day Ad Da’en festival is the brainchild of Waleed Madibo, a Darfurian aristocrat of the Arab Rizeigat tribe. He wanted to bring the warring tribes of Darfur together over their love of horses and music and says it was Sudan’s British colonial administrators of the 1920s who revived the zaffa, a traditional gathering at which the Baggara – nomadic, cattle-herding Arab tribes – met to resolve their differences. Ad Da’en is a modern-day zaffa, with poetry, reggae and folk music thrown into the mix.

A festival is a smart way to communicate with large numbers of people in a region where most of the population has no access to newspapers, television or radio. It is also a Who’s Who of Darfur, including the most senior representatives – nazirs, maliks, magdums, oumdas and sheikhs – from the Arab Rizeigat and Fellata tribes and from the African Fur and Zaghawa tribes.

These 300 or so top-level attendees, flown in by charter plane, gather daily in formal seminars to discuss contentious issues, such as security and land ownership, that lie at the heart of the conflict. Initially, the war pitted nomadic Arabs supported by the Khartoum government against the settled African tribes, but it has since escalated into something far more complicated and intractable. During the failed peace talks held in Abuja in 2006, only a few rebel movements sat across the negotiating table. Now there are as many as 30 rebel groups active.

One arts festival in Darfur is strange enough. But Ad Da’en is not an isolated event. The first Darfurian arts festival was held in October 2006. Afia Darfur took its name from the local greeting Afia (good health) and aimed to publicise the already unravelling 2006 Darfur peace agreement through street theatre, comedy, music and sport. It was repeated, again to wide acclaim, in October 2007. The hope is that it will take place this year too – although in light of the recent International Criminal Court indictment of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on genocide charges, this is in some doubt.

Holding any kind of festival in Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is difficult. For Afia Darfur the logistics are daunting. More than 100 artists, actors, musicians and television personalities had to be flown in and given suitable accommodation, and organisers scrambled to find it.

At last year’s festival, The National Theatre of Omdurman, the leading company in Sudan, performed 27 shows in public spaces, telling stories that encouraged the audience to help solve problems such as water management and inter-tribal conflicts. Wildly popular puppet shows in towns and refugee camps attracted combined crowds of 40,000.

“The children of Darfur are totally different from children anywhere else,” says Imam Hassan, a television director who led the children’s strand of the festival. “They’re growing up in an environment full of war and tribal clashes. They’re suspicious of strangers, their language is more hostile and adult. They’ve lost their innocence. We try to get them to forget the war and tribalism to ensure a healthy, more tolerant and peaceful society in the years to come.”

Afia Darfur 2006 attracted an estimated 400,000 to the various free shows held during the fortnight-long event. The festival is run as a partnership between Igd al Galad, the most famous musical group in Sudan, and Albany Associates, a British communications consultancy that is contracted to help with the public information campaign for the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

“We wanted to help re-establish traditional customs to provide the cultural space in which Darfurians could air their differences and address their problems,” says Simon Haselock, director of Albany.

Igd al Galad, a large band with ever-changing members aged from their mid-20s to their mid-50s, is a national institution in Sudan. The group sings long ballads and plays a folky, funky, jazzy fusion pepped up with pop. Their lyrics tend towards the spiritual and socially conscious.

One of their most popular – and longest – numbers is “Haja Amna”, a song about a poor old woman unable to pay her bills, a critique of government neglect. Then there is “And Every Time We Think”, whose opening lines, “And every time we think it’s dawn, the night continues”, is a neat summary of the atrophied world of Sudanese politics.

For years Igd al Galad have run a non-governmental organisation supporting health and education projects, raising money and engaging in an activism that has seen them in and out of prison over the years. During the civil war that tore the country apart from 1983 to 2005 – Muslim north versus Christian, animist south – they also took to the stage in the south with concerts promoting reconciliation. They were a natural headline act for the first Afia Darfur festival. Traditionally neglected by the central government and culturally off the map as far as almost every artist in Khartoum was concerned, Darfur had never seen anything like it. The sense of culture shock was profound. Devoted fans couldn’t quite believe it really was Igd al Galad.

On the first night of this year’s Ad Da’en festival there is that same delirious disbelief when the star singer Abdarahman Abdullah takes to the stage. He is a portly crooner from the state of Kordofan, a legend lovingly known as “the Frank Sinatra of western Sudan”. Elderly tribal leaders hobble up to the stage, walking sticks held aloft, to pay tribute to him. Women and children rush forward to dance in front of him and catch his eye.

Next up is the well-known poet and activist Mohammed Taha al Gaddal, a genial, courtly figure. He recites a long poem of lyrical parallels between the people of Sudan and the Nile, now branching into two rivers, now coming together as one, as the Blue Nile and White Nile join in Khartoum. The prolonged applause indicates a general weariness at the intransigence of the men with guns. “Ya salam” (how wonderful), a greybeard sighs in the front row.

International donors consider festivals to be good value. The Afia Darfur festival costs approximately $300,000, according to Albany Associates – a fraction of the approved budget of $1.28bn for the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (Unamid) in 2007-2008. But how effective are festivals in promoting peace? Is it realistic – or even fair – to expect these events to demonstrate concrete results in an ongoing conflict? Or should they simply be regarded as intrinsically good in themselves, providing light relief to a population mired in war?

This summer I spent three months in Darfur and Khartoum working with Albany Associates as a communications adviser to Unamid. Initially I wondered whether cultural events could play a role in resolving a long-running military conflict rooted in historical grievances. Politics, surely, was the only way forward.

There were some positive signs. Colleagues pointed to the immediate drop in crime that coincided with the first Afia Darfur festival. The festivals also create a vital link between Khartoum and long-neglected Darfur. The poet al Gaddal believes these cultural events with mass appeal are profoundly important to help heal a divided society. “The norm is that all these people and ethnic groups live together,” he says. “The cultures are interlocking. What cultural festivals and intellectuals do is to put this norm – which has become abnormal – back on track. The politicians have succeeded only in deepening the divide between the cultures.”

To expect a concert or two to end one of the most catastrophic conflicts of recent times is missing the point. It is trite to think that live performances could transform the war, agrees Nasr ad Deen, the charismatic manager of Igd al Galad. For last year’s festival the band returned to Darfur to play two concerts in Al Fasher and two in Al Jeneina, capital of West Darfur, home to some of the worst clashes in recent times, with rebels crossing in and out of Chad under fire from the Sudanese air force.

“No one was under any illusion that singing about peace would bring peace but it created this altered state for those two weeks, giving an idea of what peace might look like,” he explains. “The message was that if people could stop fighting when Igd al Galad was in town, they could stop when we were no longer there.”

After the riotous success of June’s Ad Da’en festival and the Afia Darfur festivals of the past two years, many hope they will become permanent fixtures in the calendar. “We believe these events that bring the traditional leadership together without the involvement of politicians represent the best way forward for Darfur. We are determined to continue them,” says Waleed Madibo.

But the violence has got worse in recent months, the political climate is poisoned and many wonder whether this year’s Afia Darfur festival will be allowed to go ahead. Having large numbers of people gathered in one place is potentially explosive.

It is the final day of the festival in Ad Da’en. On another morning crackling with heat, a rousing scene brings the celebration to a close. Sheikh al Fatih Mohammed al Bura’i, a revered Sufi leader, is lifted astride a magnificent horse. The nazir – or paramount chief – of the Rizeigat has presented it as a gift to his counterpart, the nazir of the Fellata, in a gesture of friendship. The elderly sheikh’s followers, in white jalabiyas and red sashes, cheer him on as the horse is led around the compound, pressed in on all sides by jubilant crowds.

Festival organiser Madibo says the local leaders now understand that if they unite and stand firm they can “change the status quo without asking the government’s permission”. This may be true, though they will be challenged every step of the way by a government desperate to retain dwindling control.

Whatever Khartoum decides about the 2008 Afia Darfur festival, says Atif Khaled, an actor and director from The National Theatre of Omdurman, one way or another the show will go on. “The government can stop it but in our role as artists we’ll always find a way to get our message across. The campaign will go on as long as the conflict continues.”

Justin Marozzi’s ‘The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus’ will be published by John Murray in October

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