Dakar is a metropolis situated onthe westernmost tip of continental Africa that’s regarded as exceptionally”modern.” With a population of about three million, it is the capitalof Senegal, a Muslim nation of 12 million whose religious orientation is Sufi,whose lingua franca is Wolof, whose official language is French, and whosefirst president, Léopold Senghor, was both a distinguished French poet and afounder of the Négritude movement. In addition to Senghor and the self-educatednovelist-turned-filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Senegal produced theseminal Afrocentric historian and perennial Senghor opponent Cheikh Anta Diop,after whom the national university is named, and many musicians, mostprominently the singer-bandleader Youssou N’Dour, who rose from the downtownslum of Medina to take percussive Wolof mbalax to preeminence in Dakar andrenown the world over.
Ultimately, it was music that brought me to Dakar,because it was music that educated me about Africa to begin with. Having dippedinto Afropop because I felt I owed it to the African-American music I’d lovedforever, I ended up a bigger fan than most African-Americans, and soon felt Iowed it to Afropop to learn more about Africa. But the specific attractionwasn’t N’Dour, who as it happens was in New York the week I was in Dakar. Itwas Bloomberg News’s Drew Hinshaw, who I taught six years ago as an NYUrecorded music major. Having reviewed hundreds of African albums and read closeto 100 books, I had spent all of five days in Africa, covering 1995’sFrancophone MASA festival in Côte d’Ivoire, where I watched shows and attendedpanels in a five-star hotel. This time I got to spend a week with Drew and hisfiancée Celeste Mason in the modest Dakar neighborhood of Sicap Baobab—not theskylined downtown Plateau to the south or ritzy, touristic Les Almadies upnorth. The idea wasn’t to research Senegalese music or any other ill-defined”story.” It was to get my feet on the ground while I could stillwalk. Baobab was made for that.
While still largely Senegalese and Muslim, Baobabattracts many immigrants from Cape Verde and Francophone West Africa, andcompared to the slums I glimpsed and the shantytowns I didn’t, where manyresidents risk their lives to emigrate illegally to Europe in fishing pirogues,the population is middle class—nearby houses were small but walled, with fouror five cars in the big sandlot they surrounded. But the lady next door soldcoffee out front, and on the busier streets many homes doubled as tiny shopscrammed with groceries, clothing, electronics, hardware, and dry goods. Drewbought his breakfast bean sandwich at a stand a dusty block and a half away,which had better Nescafé, but he always asked after the family of any neighborhe passed. He was Doudou Ndiaye—”DR” is hard to pronounce in Wolof. Iwas his professeur, Baba Ndiaye. Ndiaye, notes Eric S. Ross, is “one ofthe most common and aristocratic Senegalese family names.”
Although usually we hailed cabs, Drew and I took enoughlong walks that I started dusting my black sneakers. So my feet were definitelyon the ground. But how much good that could do my head was limited—the mostrudimentary comprehension of such a foreign place takes longer than the weekI’d carved out. The tolerable pre-harmattan heat, the omnipresent red dirt, theto-and-fro of the street, the potholed roads and toxic exhausts, the seabordering the best highway and worst slum I saw, and the bright sun eased bythe stored humidity of the huge old tree that gave the nabe its name—theseremained hyper-real.
I’d been beefing up mybooklist: with Eric Ross’s solidly utilitarian Cultureand Customs of Senegal, Edward Miguel’s hopeful pan-African Africa’sTurn?, Fatou Diome’s pained, lyrical emigration novel TheBelly of the Atlantic, and most memorably Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s 1962 Ambiguous Adventure, a sere, spare, consciously Dostoyevskyandemonstration of the humane subtlety of Islamic thought that’s bothhead-clearing and mind-boggling—and that now joins Sembene’s God’sBits of Wood and Ahmadou Kourouma’s Monnew in my private pantheon of great-not-good WestAfrican novels. True, once on the ground I started to suspect that readingcould do little more than precede the physical experience. Yet in the end threethree-syllable words I’d learned helped shape my perceptions: Tabaski, talibe, teranga.
Tabaski is the big Muslim feast dayset for just after I left, so that Dakar teemed with the goatlike sheep everyfamily was expected to buy—an obligation sure to increase scamming, Drewreminded us after declining to open the gate Sunday night to someoneselling . . . tablecloths?? While for Ross”talibe” merely signifies any Sufi sheikh’s disciple, Lonely Planet’sKatharina Lobeck Kane knows that the term now usually signifies child beggarsenslaved by sadistic marabouts, another term that’s become increasinglypejorative. Although in August 84-year-old president Abdoulaye Wade crackeddown on these kids (not, natch, the creeps who beat them if they don’t maketheir quota), they remained out there, the only street hustlers in Baobab—remindersthat, even in a forward-looking nation like Senegal, the gains in democraticgovernance, Asian aid, oil windfalls, and micro-finance cited by Edward Miguelhave yet to touch most Africans. As for teranga, that’s what the Senegalesecall their ethos of hospitality. Various sources prepared me for a city full oftall young men taking my measure every five steps, and in the Plateau therewere quite a few, although a simple “non merci” usually turned themaway. But teranga proved the norm.
I don’t want to get gooey—some of my contacts may havetreated me like a bigshot just because I’m a journalist. But that could havebeen teranga too. It was certainly teranga when Baobabans I’d never exchanged aparole with bid me au revoir as I wheeled my suitcase through the dust to gohome. In my experience, the Senegalese weren’t just cordial—they were gracious,welcoming. I even liked my cab drivers, including the poor guy who got lostafter being stared down to 2000 CFAs by an employee of N’Dour’s Medina radiostation assigned to get me to his Almadies television station.
I was touring N’Dour’s Futurs Média, which also includesone of Dakar’s better newspapers, because for me the finest musician in theworld proved inescapable. Three different, striking, and unfamiliar Youssousongs blared from three of the four sound systems we passed in the packed HLMmarket Sunday. Monday I called sabar-dancing, L.A.-based singer-songwriterAshley Maher, who N’Dour’s American associate Thomas Rome had recommended as aguide to Dakar music, and found myself having lunch in the Plateau with Maher,Drew, and another Rome recommendation, the tremendously genial Babacar Thiam,who now manages Orchestra Baobab but made his name as N’Dour’s road manager. Inthe month before N’Dour’s big 2008 concert at Paris’s Bercy arena, he told usin a story he visibly relished, Thiam obtained 125 visas in a month for theN’Dour entourage. Scoring one visa in a month is an achievement in Dakar. Thiamleft N’Dour’s employ shortly after this feat.
But though N’Dour’s network took up much of myinterviewing time, his Thiossane club was dark as usual, and the music I foundelsewhere included no true mbalax. Maybe it could have; maybe I should havesought out Thione Seck’s suburban venue, although Drew and Celeste thought hewas on automatic when they’d seen him. But I have bigger regrets, like notorganizing a disco night because I didn’t feel like staying up till 4 threenights running, or not meeting any rappers because the only number I had wasfor Ndongo of the suspiciously ingratiating Daara J. And I nevertheless remainsuitably awestruck by the four shows I did get to. None were perfect. Alllifted into exemplary highs.
The first and last were at aroofed outdoor club near the university called Just4U—a toubab place on namealone, yet also a musicians’ hangout. Around midnight Sunday, high-pitched,nasal Alioune Guisse took the stage backed by a part-electric, part-acousticband and two female singers and established a hypnotic groove more trad thanI’d expected and more gripping than I expect trad to be. But when the songs woredown after the first two, my body reminded me where it had woken up the daybefore. Just one more, I told Drew, and so it was—only the one more lasted halfan hour. There was no escape as the tempo quickened and the call-and-responsehooked in and dancers arose from the audience and a tama drummer ambled onstage15 minutes in. We left when it was finally over on the theory that Guissecouldn’t top it soon—and that if he could, we’d best beat a retreat while thebeating was good.
The three other shows were similarly remarkable andremarkably dissimilar, none more than Maher pick Khady Mboup in the roughsuburb of Guediawaye, where the red-lit, open-air Le Ravin was big enough for awedding or a Koranic school, both of which the music suggested. A statuesquewoman in an orange headscarf wailing and expostulating over an ensemblecomprising a second female singer, two guys plucking traditional lutes, fourmale hand drummers, and a woman beating a plastic washtub, it was asIslamic-sounding as any music I’ve heard in a popular setting, yet unmistakablysecular as its din inspired half the 50-strong crowd to the distorted posturesand wild jumps and flails of sabar. On Friday, a supremely bored band backed adreadful singer-songwriter in an Almadies boite for 45 minutes, then leaped tolife when headliner Awadi vaulted onstage for trilingual rapping that rockedhardest of all in Wolof, whose gutturals are an ideal hip-hop sonic. Amonologue about power outages turning Dakar into a vast disco of twinkling lightshad Drew chuckling as he tried to translate. But well before he was done, itwas down to Just4U to catch Yoro Ndiaye.
This bearer of that common yet aristocratic surname is a2011 globalFEST selection whose “acoustic mbalax,” to borrow Maher’sevocative if not strictly factual phrase, had been warmly recommended by threesources. Drew and I listened respectfully—Ndiaye’s tenor has character, hiselectric guitarist knows harmony, etc. Only then came a finale where one guesttrumped another—first a blind powerhouse we were instructed to cheer because he”didn’t have his sheep yet,” then a light-skinned, straight-wiggedsexpot, then a skullcapped elder who augured high seriousness and deliveredwisecracks that sidled past the language barrier as well as the strongest vocalequipment I heard in Senegal, only to be followed by an older elder whoseequally piercing voice was more sparingly deployed. Good taste morphed intohigh excitement as all these characters came and went.
These shows were all imperfect, including Mboup’s, whichreally did reduce to din at times. But as if to illustrate the truism aboutAfrican music being part of everyday life, the imperfection was built in.What’s less of a truism is that some consummation more uplifting than perfectionwas also part of the deal. I might have done as well in Lagos or Kinshasa, atleast in theory—neither is as livable as Dakar, and neither’s nightlife isbulked up by tourist CFAs. But in Nigeria and Congo, the aesthetic is animisticwith a thin Christian overlay. Senegal is Muslim—also French-secular, that’simportant, but fundamentally Muslim. In a moment when too much Islam isreactionary and too many Euro-American reactionaries can’t tell one Muslim fromanother, I came away as impressed and hopeful as I could have hoped.
The two Miguel essays and nine critiques that comprise Africa’s Turn? make clear that Africa isno longer the doomed charnel house of the ’90s. But though I was intrigued tolearn that Parisians seeking computer assistance are as likely to reach Dakaras New Yorkers are Mumbai, it’s probably not happenstance that Senegal isbarely mentioned, because it’s been slipping—since 2000, when Wade became therare African leader who wasn’t Nelson Mandela to assume power after a fairelection, the only progress has been a 2004 peace agreement with rebels inCasamance. Even the scrupulously uncontroversial Ross feels constrained tomention “declining purchasing power” and young citizens”disillusioned with politics.”
Still, Senegal has slipped in partbecause it had somewhere to slip from, and though music scenes aren’trepresentative cross-sections anywhere on earth, this one was varied enough toreinforce my general impression that the slippage hasn’t been cultural. Tostart, a Muslim music scene is something reactionaries on both sides consider acontradiction in terms. Senegal’s reflects its Europhile history and itsintra-African multiculturalism—Alioune Guisse is Fulani, Khady Mboup Serere—aswell as the Sufi practice of integrating music into worship. But these thingsare always complicated. Though mbalax artists including N’Dour have longrecorded praisesongs to sheikhs and marabouts, Senegal’s Islamic establishmentwas outraged by his 2005 Egypt, which celebrated all of hisnation’s Sufi brotherhoods, not just his own Mourides. Half a century ago,Kane’s novel dramatized the conflict between a God-seeking Islam in which amarabout who sends his young talibes out begging is a heroic figure and anintellectually questing Islam that impels the same marabout to approve aEuropean education for his finest student. Egyptemerged from that conflict. So did the connotative evolution of the word”marabout.”
The Senegal I observed was simultaneously secular anddevout. Markets didn’t close down at prayer time, but they eased up; driversrolled out their prayer rugs along the seaside corniche. The only drunk Iencountered all week was hustled away by the Mourides who ran the bus stopwhere he accosted me; Just4U sold lots of water and soft drinks; neither of theMuslims with whom I shared meals partook of any of Senegal’s three excellentbeers. Renting his house, Drew had been warned that Baobab was “a littledangerous” because “there are lots of Christians there”—andChristians, of course, drink. That story got the only laugh I could elicit froman evangelical missionary I interviewed, who readily acknowledged thatSenegal’s reputation for tolerance was well-earned.
The missionary forgot to mention that tolerance doesn’textend to homosexuals. But though I’m sure women are still often subjugated,especially outside the cities, I saw little veiling and a great many workingwomen, most strikingly at N’Dour’s TV station. There progress was long impededby Wade, who tried to deny N’Dour a licence to broadcast from the facility he’dsunk serious capital into. After a year of string-pulling and rumors thatN’Dour would run for president, he was permitted to go live on condition thatthe content be strictly “cultural,” a term his exceedingly bright andyoung staff proceeded to interpret as broadly as Raymond Williams. Programmingincludes a newsmagazine, a weekend show in which political figuresoften discuss the meaning of “culture,” and much hip-hop, which manyWolof speakers regard as the political future of Senegalese pop.
Maybe, maybe not. Having seen the excellent Awadi stirup the whitest audience I joined all week, I wonder how many slum dwellers getto watch N’Dour’s station. Nor is it likely that the finest pop musician in theworld can therefore be an effective political leader—or that he has anyintention of trying, though Wade is so despised I hope somebody does. But in myrudimentary way, I still left Senegal more encouraged than I arrived. Wesecular humanists believe that everyday life with a few highs is all any beliefsystem can be expected to provide.