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Kaolack, a city located to the southeast of Dakar is most known for the huge covered market and the grand mosque.  We visited Kaolack for another reason, to meet Viola Vaughn and learn more about the program she created, 10,000 Girls.

Viola, originally from Detroit, Michigan, spent much of her working life in Africa.  She described her job as a sort of “problem solver”; helping organizations to operate more efficiently.  She fell in love with Africa and when she retired she and her husband chose to live in Senegal.  In Kaolack, she learned the sad reality that girls were failing out of school at an alarming rate and, well, her problem solving instincts kicked in.  She began to help out one girl, then a few others, and soon 10,000 Girls was born.  Don’t believe me that Viola is an amazing person?  Check out her profile on CNN.

According to Viola, girls are more likely to fail out of school than boys because they are expected to take on housekeeping duties.  They may miss one day to run an errand, then another to babysit, and so on.  Before they know it they are far behind in their studies with little chance to catch up.  The girl may fail out of school entirely, (I believe in Senegal you are given only two opportunities, if you fail twice you’re out), or it becomes evident that her brother is more successful in school so he gets more family support with his studies.  The numbers are staggering.  According to 10,000 Girls literature, in Kaolack, only 1% of girls who enter primary school graduate from high school.

Meeting with Viola

Meeting with Viola

10,000 Girls supports students in 3 different ways.  They can get either in-school support or after school support and they also have entrepreneurial programs which are used to teach valuable skills and make money to sustain the program.  The girls’ parents sign a contract pledging not to pull them from school for domestic responsibilities and the girls are obliged be present in school and devote a certain amount of time to study.  The entrepreneurial program started humbly with girls baking and selling cookies door-to-door.  Today they run a bakery and catering service and also a sewing workshop where they make dolls, place mats, table cloths, quilts, etc.  Their products are sold domestically and internationally and, yes, they do have clients in the United States.  Here’s a picture of them showing off some fruits of their labor in the workshop:

This being Senegal, the land of Teranga, of course we were invited to lunch at Viola’s house.  I hopped into the back of her pickup truck and I, along with many others, headed over.  Here we are lunching at Viola’s:

At lunch Viola asked for an update on what’s going on in the States since she doesn’t have much free time to follow the news.  Instead of delivering a substantive disquisition on the our current economic and political state, I cut straight to the puerile presidential race.  “Oh, you know, Barack and Michelle Obama exchange terrorist fist taps, and Obama is really a muslim…”, I mumbled.  “And what’s wrong with being a muslim?” Viola queried defiantly, (Viola herself is muslim, a convert, I assume).  “Well I of course don’t have a problem with Islam but some Americans equate Islam with terrorism these days and ‘accusing’ him of being a muslim will score easy points with these people.”  The tension drained as we considered and laughed about this silly, cynical tactic.  She said Africa is solidly behind Obama; if he only knew how many goats were being sacrificed for him!

Viola regularly has American college students in Kaolack on internships or just volunteering, (10,000 Girls has partnerships with a few universities).  I asked if any specific skill sets or majors were needed; Viola said that she can use anyone.  If you are interested in getting involved with this exciting program or just want to learn more about it you can do so here.

Regrettably, we had to leave soon after lunch, but we had time for one last picture with the group.

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The Holy City of Touba

We got up early, packed the cars, and slowly made our way out of Dakar.  There’s nearly always too much traffic and the roads leading out of town can get really backed up.  In the stop-and-go of our exit legions of vendors passed through the cars proffering newspapers, clothing, candy, tiny birds packed together in cages, electric fans, sunglasses, and just about anything else you can think of.  It was still early but the sun was already bearing down on us pretty hard.  From the window of my air-conditioned car I watched these men pass by, sweat streaming down their faces, many were bareheaded in the brilliant sun.  I couldn’t help but wonder, who buys this stuff?  A guy carrying a stack of multicolored hand towels slowly walked by, carefully making eye contact with everyone in the car.  Two minutes later, another would pass carrying yet another stack of multicolored hand towels.  Is it possible to eek out a living selling hand towels to motorists stuck in traffic jams?  Is the invisible hand somehow at work here?

The sun, intense as it was in Dakar, had raised it’s game in Touba.  The heat was oppressive and immediately after stepping out of the car I scanned my surroundings for shade and found refuge beside a low wall.  Blinking and attempting to focus in this high contrast environment I first saw the minarets of the grand mosque majestically looming above the city.

 

Before visiting the mosque we passed by the Kaliph’s residence.  I was surprised when we were invited inside.  This is the entrance gate.

Some of the Mouride brothers generously offered to show us around.  Gladys and Cynthia were asked to cover their heads before entering and we all had to take off our shoes and walk barefoot through the compound’s scorching sand.  Yikes!

On our own little private tour we saw various sitting rooms, meeting rooms, guest quarters, a large dining hall, and a prayer room.  Everything was immaculately kept up but fairly hot and stuffy since none of these rooms were in use and the air conditioning wasn’t running.  Sorry to disappoint folks, but we didn’t meet the Kaliph or see any of his private rooms, (not that I was expecting to).  We were however introduced to the marabout in charge of the residence who was conferring with a mouride brother in the shade of a building.

After our tour of the Kaliph’s residence one of the Mouride brothers offered to take us through the grand mosque.  I was wearing shorts and so would not have been able to enter had one of the Mouride brothers not taken off his own ankle length bou bou and given it to me.  It was a bit soiled and sweaty but it fit me perfectly and was my ticket into the mosque.

We approached the entrance and our guide stopped us and said that at this point we had to take our shoes off.  My heart sank as I gazed upon the vast sea of polished white and black patterned stone stretching out before me in the sun.  As this tender-footed American contemplated how best to tiptoe-sprint across the paved expanse, (help! Tony Robbins!), the guide must have recognized my angst and told me to relax, this was a sort of stone, (or marble? I don’t remember now), that doesn’t soak up the malevolent energy of the sun, (I’m paraphrasing).  He was right.  I paused to take a picture:

The women’s prayer area is just past the entrance, (women and men pray separately).  Our guide, (sorry, I don’t recall his name), was explaining this to us as I snapped the picture:

Just beyond this was the point where congregants performed their ablutions before prayer:

And then into the main hall of the mosque:

Touba is the place where Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mourides, lived when not exiled by the French.  He is easily the country’s most revered Islamic figure and, as I wrote in a previous post, you will see his image everywhere in Senegal.  He died and is buried here and this is why Touba is known as the holy city.  Considering the importance of Bamba, visiting his mausoleum in the grand mosque was the highlight.  Here’s a photo:

It was beautiful place, if you are interested in seeing any more pictures of the mosque or Touba you can do so on my Flickr page.  There’s a link to the right under “Blogroll”.

Music of Dakar 3/3

Percussion and Discussion

Continuing into the next day, rhythm seemed to be a pervasive element everywhere we went. In the afternoon, Ibrahima, Lamine, Rich, Hiro and I attended a wrestling match at Stade Demba Diop. The sound of drums filled the corridor leading to the arena as we passed men praying on a large rug just before the entrance. Before the matches began, each of the wrestlers made an elaborate entrance onto the field. One of 3 or 4 troupes of drummers would commence by playing the Ya Nu Moom rhythm, then launch into a medium tempo triplet based rhythm as the wrestler and his entourage would slowly dance their way towards the drummers, then to the middle of the ring. The one exception to this routine was for wrestler Paul Maurice, a wrestler from the Serer ethnic group, who had a different troupe of drummers and a group of female griot singers. During the matches, the Wolof drummers were also joined by singers, who’s message was translated to me by Lamine as “let the best man win.”

Wolof griots, known as gewel, are involved in many aspects of Senegalese life, including entertainment, politics, sports, religion and life cycle ceremonies. The importance of gewel, as well as their place in Senegal’s highly stratified caste system were among the topics of conversation at a dinner hosted by Dr Fallou Ngom, a former student of my father and peer of Ibrahima. Fallou is currently finishing a year traveling throughout Senegal and surrounding countries on a Fulbright scholarship to study Ajami, the use of Arabic script to write indigenous languages such as Wolof, Serer, and Peul. Ibrahima and Fallou, although very good friends, did not seem to see eye to eye regarding the effects of the caste system on gewel life. Ibrahima related several stories about injustices faced by gewel as a result of their caste. In one instance, a man born into a gewel family became a prominent business man and eventually a supreme court justice, but was still routinely disrespected. Another story involved Youssou Ndour, who sent a messenger to ask the father of a woman from a higher caste for her hand in marriage. The father told the messenger to go back to Youssou Ndour and tell him what he is. Fallou, on the other hand, spoke of how gewel is a mark of distinction. He cited their role as masters of language ,their historical importance in communicating the wishes of chiefs to their constituents and their power to lift someone up or tear someone down, as evidence of their elevated status. My experience in Senegal was far too brief to be able to draw any conclusions about the social status of gewel, but I think that the high caliber of musicianship that I witnessed in Dakar reflects the importance of being raised and educated in a gewel household on the formation of many musicians. At the same time, I can understand how the perception that certain people are born into an occupation can lead to notions of inequality.

Soiree Senegalaise – The Grand Finale

My last full day in Dakar did not begin well. I woke up early and made the first of several trips to the bathroom. As Ibrahima put it, I was finally paying my “travel tax”. Later in the day, I began to develop a fever, and any time that I moved around at all I would start to feel nauseous. I decided to stay put rather than to go visit the university with the others, hoping to be able to recuperate before my 24+ hour journey home the next day. Thankfully, Mrs. Pope took very good care of me, bringing me dry toast from the boulangerie, and tea and chicken noodle soup that she had brought from the US. In the evening I was feeling a little better, but far from back to normal. Ousseynou invited a griot friend of his who played an instrument called the bongo – a thumb piano with 7 keys attached a large wooden box, which he knocked with his free hand in between notes – to come and sing praises for us. The griot had a great voice that resonated throughout the courtyard. He taught me to play some simple melodies along with the accompanying percussion before leaving.

By 11 o’clock I was feeling well enough to consider going out, after all, it was my last night and I still hadn’t seen any live mbalax. Ngalla, as always, said he would be happy to take us out, and that there should be a lot of options, since Tuesday was the night for mbalax at many of Dakar’s nightclubs. He took his time getting ready, and we left the house sometime after 12:30. As I got into the cab with Rich and Ngalla I was still a little nauseous, but it wasn’t terrible. We drove first to a casino/club by the shore, not far from the Medina, but they were having an international club night. Another club by the shore also had a DJ, and a club called Sahel, on the other side of the Medina had an mbalax/salsa night that Ngalla didn’t seem too thrilled about. Just 4 You and Pen’Art, were both featuring music of a more laid back variety, so finally, as a last resort we checked out the Madison Club, which I had driven by several times without having gone inside. The artist that night was Salam Diallo, who, according to Ngalla played “real mbalax” that we would enjoy.
The inside of the club had plush leather booths, mirrors along the walls, and a medium sized dance floor in the middle. The band was set up in the back corner, and as we walked in Salam Diallo was being interviewed by a reporter from Walf TV. There were about 10 or 20 people scattered around the club, and me and Rich were sure that we had missed the show. The interview was broken up by some slow musical interludes from the band which featured 3 percussionists – one on tama, one on mbung mbung and one on what looked like a narrow djembe – 2 backup singers, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and an instrument called a xalam, a stringed instrument, about the size of a ukulele but with a thinner neck, an oval body, and a tone that resembles a banjo. After the interview, the band launched into a mid tempo song, as Diallo tried to get some equipment issues worked out. The song featured many interlacing rhythmic parts that came together perfectly without anyone finishing on what those of us with western musical training would consider “beat 1”. I let Ngalla know how much I was enjoying it, and he told me that it would get much better. Pretty soon the set started in earnest. At some point, without my noticing, the club had gone from being virtually empty to standing room only, with several people joining us in our booth. Salam Diallo did not sing in the traditional griot style, but instead stuck with tassu and a more MC type of approach, passing the mic fairly often to one of many griot singers who took their turn on the stage.

While Diallo worked the crowd, the percussion section pushed the music forward, playing accompaniment rhythms interspersed with polyrhythmic breaks that would keep any jazz musician on the edge of their seat.

The night continued to build in intensity as a group of guys got up on the stage one by one to show off their dancing skills. The style of dancing was similar to what I had seen at the sabar, lots of high energy kicking and spinning, all the while keeping ones balance and coordinating with certain hits from the band perfectly.

After about an hour of this, a group of 8-10 drummers began to set up on the dance floor. What occurred next was a sort of sabar within a night club, an event known as a Soiree Senegalaise. The drummers played as men and women got up to dance one at a time. A female griot came up to sing praises and the xalam player took out a wad of about a dozen 5000 CFA notes (a little more than $10 each) and handed them to her one by one. The percussionists played for an hour or so, then the band started up again. Another griot took the stage, and called out praises for a few people in the audience who then came up to give him money. It was after 4:00 and both Rich and Ngalla had to get up early the next morning so we decided to call it a night. The place was packed and as far as I could tell we were the first ones to go home. On the way back I noticed that all of my symptoms had completely gone away.

Conclusion

My flight back home lead me through Boston before going back to New York. While I was on the bus between terminals, a man wearing a drum necklace asked me if I was coming from Senegal. I asked him how he knew and if he was a drummer. As it turns out, he was from the Sing Sing family and manages a group of Sing Sing Juniors who live in Boston. We talked about Dakar, Khadim’s master craftsmanship and the difficulty of getting visas for Senegalese musicians before parting ways. Somehow it didn’t surprise me to run into someone with a connection to my musical experiences in Dakar. A side product of the closeness of many Dakarois to their neighbors and extended families is that these sort of occurrences are commonplace.

My overall experience in Senegal was overwhelmingly positive. In addition to all the great music, Ibrahima, Ousseynou and Miriam were the perfect hosts, making sure that we were always taken care of, and well fed. Lamine and Ngalla were extremely generous with their time and I enjoyed our many conversations. I felt a great camaraderie with all of the Parkland group, and everyone in and around the house. I feel that I definitely took certain privileges that go along with being American for granted, and leaving was especially tough knowing that, as much as I thought that getting the time and the money to organize the trip was hard, it will be much much harder for my Senegalese friends to visit me, considering the extreme difficulty of getting a visa. Of all the places I’ve visited, I feel like I could go back to Dakar time and time again and continue to learn from both the music and the generosity and openness of many of the Senegalese people I encountered.

Brendan Kibbee

Music of Dakar 2.5/3

Apparently you can only embed a limited number of videos with each post.  I was hoping to show the progression of the sabar event through a series of 4 or 5 videos, so here are a few others:

Warm up, Khadim on the Nder (with an orange shirt)

Ya Nu Moom, Bamba (you can see people’s heads turning at the end, this was when the kids ran to the other end)

Tassu

The Drums of Dakar 

 

The next day, I set out to buy a new drum. As much as I’ve always been interested in hand percussion, I’ve never had a serious drum to call my own, and after studying the rhythms of Senegal so closely, I wanted to be able to play them on one of the instruments they were meant for. The first step for me was deciding which type of drum to buy. Wolof drums, known as sabars, or slangily as “tam-tams” come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The shells are made from mahogany by members of the woodworkers cast, and the goatskin heads are mounted by the drummers themselves often using an intricate system involving pegs, rope, and ribbons (see photo below). The skins are usually pulled very tight, giving the drums a very high pitched, cutting sound, similar to the drumline of contemporary marching bands, and are played using the left hand, and a flat stick, about 1 cm thick, held by the right hand. 

The tallest of the sabars, known as the nder, has an hourglass shape and stands at nearly 4 feet tall, but is only about 6 to 8 inches in diameter at the head. When it’s used, it usually functions as the lead drum of the group, and placed in front of the other drummers, tilted forward on the back of a chair. I thought of getting an nder, but decided that, besides being more difficult to carry around and set up, I would rather get a drum more suitable for an apprentice. I also considered getting a tama, or “talking drum”, a double headed, hour glass shaped drum, about 1 foot long, with a lacing system that allows a player to change the pitch of the drum by squeezing it between their arm and body. As much as I like the sound, this drum was has a little more specialized function than what I wanted to get, and is not necessarily specific to Senegal and the Wolof. Ultimately, I decided the drum I wanted was the mbung-mbung. It’s about 2 feet tall, features the above mentioned head-mounting system, and can be used for both soloing or accompaniment in traditional as well as popular contexts.

After breakfast, Lamine told me that we would go to the family home of Mbaye Dieye Faye, who grew up alongside Youssou Ndour in the Medina, and remains Ndour’s sidekick and percussionist to this day. We drove down one of the Medina’s main streets until we saw “Sing Sing” painted in large letters on the side of a wall. “Sing Sing” is sort of a family nickname taken from one of the family’s famous ancestors, Sing Sing Faye, and serves as the name for a number of different family troupes such as Sing Sing Rythme, and Sing Sing Juniors. I stepped out of the car, and was led to a small dark room, adorned with pictures of famous family members, as well as paintings of Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mourride brotherhood. I met Khadim, one of the family members, who is responsible for making most of the drums. Khadim didn’t speak much French, or he just preferred to communicate in Wolof and let Lamine translate. I took a look at some of the drums sitting around the room, and he showed me photos of several different drums he had made. I pointed at a fairly large mbung mbung, and after negotiating a price I was surprised to find out that the drum was going to be custom made, and I could pick it up the next day. When I came back, I liked the drum so much I decided to pick up one of the Djembes in the room as well, especially since the price was very reasonable, and I figured it would be a long time before I got another opportunity to buy a drum from a world renowned percussion family.

 

 

Saturday Night Triple Header

The next day was fairly uneventful. I played on my new drums, drank lots of tea, and talked with everyone around. After dinner, Ibrahima’s sister Helene, told me that there was going to be a sabar – which can mean both the type of drum, and an event in which the drums are used – starting around 10, right on the next block. I was told the event would be short, and made plans to go out afterwards with Ngalla and Babacar, another nephew of Ibrahima, most likely to a club called Yengoulene, to see Vivienne, the sister-in-law of Youssou Ndour, and one of the most popular singers around. We sat around the compound listening to the first few drummers warming up and waited for the sabar to start. At around 11, a big group of us including Cynthia, Mrs Pope, Hiro, Rich and Helene, walked through a narrow passageway to the other side of the block where the sabar was going to take place. I saw Khadim, and greeted him. I was happy to know that the music that night would be provided by some of the neighborhood’s best musicians. Pretty soon they started playing through some of the standard rhythms, including Baar Mbaye, Ceebu Jen(fish and rice), and Mbalax, which I was able to recognize from my study of Masters of Sabar. Khadim played the Nder, sometimes taking a break to direct other members of the group. Although they played for at least half an hour without pause, this was still considered the warm up. Often times, young children would get up and dance along with the drums, moving their feet in perfect synchronization with the complex rhythms of the group. Slowly, more spectators began to trickle in, including a number of women, made up very nicely, dressed in matching sequined dresses, whom I presumed to be the organizers (sabars are usually organized, and attended predominantly by women, although no one seemed to mind the presence of me, Rich and Hiro). Before the event actually started, we went back to the compound to drop off Cynthia and Mrs Pope, who had been feeling under the weather since her arrival in Senegal.

Upon our return we were invited by a nice gentleman in a green boubou, to sit right up next to the percussionists in what I referred to as the “dudes corner”. Overall, there were about 100 chairs arranged in a rectangle, with an empty space about 25×50 feet in the middle. Before long, an MC showed up, and people were packed in 4 or 5 deep behind the chairs. The rhythms were unrelentingly fast, sometimes with a sixteenth note feel, and sometimes with a triplet feel, with plenty of room for one or two members to break into a short improvisation before going back to their parts. In between rhythms, the group played transitional figures in unison known as bakks. Throughout the event, women would run into the middle of the rectangle and dance for 30 seconds or so before running back. The MC spent much of the time excitedly shouting over the loudspeakers, and providing comic relief along with the lead drummers. Khadim and another drummer alternated in the role of leader, occasionally abandoning their post to chase after women as they ran off after dancing, then quickly running back to the nder.

After about an hour of this, another slightly older lead drummer and MC showed up, and the percussionists launched into a rhythm called Ya Nu Moom, Bamba (We Belong to You, Bamba), which I had read marks the beginning of sabar events! As good as the percussionists had been before, the level of intensity was kicked up another notch by the arrival of the new drummer, although his opening solo was interrupted when dozens of children started running towards the other end of the block, an event that I wouldn’t understand until leaving the sabar. We stayed there for another hour or so. The drummers continued their energetic display, and the MC danced and shouted into the crowd. At one point, the mic was handed to a woman who spoke in the tassu style over the loudspeakers, while several women danced for longer intervals, culminating with 4 women dancing in unison as the rhythm sped up. I felt a tap on my shoulder, it was Babacar beckoning me to see if I was ready to go to the club with them, I had been at the sabar for well over 2 hours and decided not to keep them waiting any longer.

As soon as I stepped away, I heard the sound of chanting coming from the next block. On the way back home we decided to stop by and check it out. Roughly 100 yards away from the sabar, there was a group of 200 or so young men, stepping in unison around a big oval. Inside of the big oval was a smaller circle of about a dozen drummers, and an older man, seated, calling out melodies, to which everyone else would respond. A friend of mine told me that these were all members of the Baye Fall brotherhood, and that this was what had prompted the children to go running away from the sabar. As I walked closer to the drummers, one of the Baye Fall, asked me for some change for the brotherhood. He was very cordial when I told him I didn’t have any, and told me I was welcome to take pictures and video of whatever I wanted. Rich didn’t have quite as easy of a time taking videos, but in the end it worked out fine for him too. We stayed for a few minutes listening to the melodies of the Baye Fall, before heading back to the house. Ngalla told me that we were really fortunate to have seen both events, since the concurrence of these two things on the same night in the same place was unprecedented.

As it turns out, Vivienne wasn’t playing at Yengoulene, so we drove around to a few other clubs to see if we could find some mbalax. Unfortunately, most clubs feature live mbalax only certain nights, and it was already closing in on 3:00, so we ended up settling on an upscale club attached to a casino, for what’s known as an “International Club Night”. The club, as well as the surrounding area, was surprisingly chic, in contrast to the other Dakar neighborhoods I had seen. Walking into the club, it felt pretty similar to going to a club in the US, something I’ve done maybe once or twice in my life. Men wore vertically striped button up shirts or designer t-shirts, women wore short skirts, the speakers thumped with the sounds of American r+b hits which fed into reggaeton beats (with wolof vocals however), and most of all, drinks cost close to $14, even the non-alcoholic ones. Pretty soon though, the music turned to the newest mbalax hits which were more to my taste. I had never listened to mbalax at that volume before, and I definitely got the feeling that this is how it’s meant to be heard. One other distinction that I could make, was that men and women were content to dance amongst themselves in groups of 3 or 4, although there were sometimes men and women dancing together as well. We finally returned home and went to sleep just as the first call to prayer from the muezzin was sounding.

Note: Soon after arriving in Senegal and meeting Rich, I told him I would contribute a music post to the blog. This being my first ever blog post, and Senegal being such a musically stimulating place, I found it impossible to keep my thoughts down to an appropriate length so I’ve divided my post into 3, hope you all enjoy it.

Beginnings

Many years before I had even conceived of going to Dakar, I stopped by the home of my friend Ibrahima (aka Professor Ndoye) to listen to some music. I’ve always been drawn to musical textures woven from strong rhythmic patterns and I was curious to hear the music of his native Senegal. That day we sat in his living room and listened to the sounds of Youssou Ndour, Omar Pene, and Cheikh Lo, all practitioners of Senegal’s most popular music, mbalax.


As with many other African styles of popular music, the mbalax sound developed from a combination of indigenous sources, and western styles including rock, funk, reggae and latin music. The vocals are clearly linked to Wolof griot traditions of praise singing and story telling, although sometimes singers switch to a style of impassioned speech called tassu, or take on the role of an MC, shouting rhythmic phrases and pushing the party forward. Another unmistakably Senegalese element of the mbalax band is the constant presence of punctuating rhythms played by it’s percussionists. Many of these rhythms have their origin in traditional drum ensembles. In fact, in the context of these ensembles, the word mbalax can refer to a specific rhythm which is an important part of any group’s repertoire, an accompaniment part within the ensemble, or the word “accompaniment” itself. In addition to the percussionists there is a drummer on a standard drum set playing rhythms based mostly around the high hat, and highlighting certain hits with the rest of the band. The group is rounded out by guitar, bass, keyboards and a horn section (or more often, horn hits played on a keyboard) each of whom make a unique contribution to the musical fabric. As with the percussionists, many of the rhythms played by the rest of the band are adapted from parts found within drum ensembles.

Youssou N’dour – Boul Bayekou


Gradually, the idea that I had to go to Dakar and experience this music first hand began to settle in my head. However, getting to Dakar would not be an easy task. Working as a musician and living just outside of New York, left me with little time and even less money. Luckily, I knew that when I could get the resources together, I would have Ibrahima’s family to host me and show me the hospitality that Senegal is famous for. Finally, after much economizing, I planned my trip so I would be in Dakar from July 1st to July 9th.

In order to better acquaint myself with some of Senegal’s musical traditions, I read a book called Masters of Sabar by Patricia Tang before leaving. The book includes a companion CD and written transcriptions of several rhythms which I studied closely so that I would be able to follow the music a little better once I got there. Also found within, are detailed descriptions of the drums themselves and the situations in which they’re heard, and a very comprehensive history of Wolof drumming in traditional and popular contexts. Much of the factual, non observational info in this post was obtained from that book, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about music in Senegal.

Life in Dakar

I arrived in Dakar on a Tuesday night. About a month before leaving I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Ibrahima himself would be in town at the same time, along with a group of people from a program organized by Parkland College in my native Urbana, Illinois. Ibrahima and his brother Ousseynou met me at the airport and we drove to the house on Rue 27 in the Medina neighborhood of Dakar. Approaching the house, I was amazed at how many people were walking around the neighborhood. At this time, it must have been at least 11 pm, and the crowd outside was comparable to evening rush hour in Jersey City, when hundreds of people get off the subway from New York and make a B line for their apartments, only in this case people seemed to be outside just for the sake of being outside, walking around and occasionally stopping to talk with others.

The courtyard of Ousseynou’s compound (also occupied by 2 or 3 other related families) was just as crowded. As I got out of the car, I met a group of about 10 guys, roughly my age, who were seated in the middle of the courtyard drinking tea. In the middle of the group was Ibou, the designated brewer for most of the very frequent tea drinking occasions, and Hiro, one of the members of the Parkland contingent. A group of women and a couple older men were in an open air living room at the front end of the courtyard watching TV, and in the opposite corner was another cluster of rooms where I met Ousseynou’s wife Miriam, they’re 2 year old daughter Awa, Ibrahima’s sister, also named Awa, her husband Lamine, Cynthia, a recently retired English professor from Parkland, and Rich, a diminutive dunce of dubious distinction. The next day, I would also meet Mrs. Pope, who had taught first grade at Leal Elementary School, my alma mater and a source of great pride for both of us. I sat down to eat some fish and rice with Ibrahima and Ousseynou, and afterwards, took a seat on a big leather couch in another quasi open air living room where I was joined by Rich and Ngalla, one of Ibrahima’s nephews who would become a good friend and a very helpful guide to the nightclubs of Dakar. After watching some concert footage of Omar Pene on a channel called Walf TV, I finally went to bed around 2:30 am.

My first full day in Dakar didn’t include any live music per se, but was very musical none the less. In the morning, I drove with Lamine to get some croissants, and he played me some tracks from the newest Youssou Ndour album. I was surprised to find that the tracks had a hard percussive mbalax sound to them, since most of Ndour’s recent albums released in the US embody a more “new age” sensibility of world music. Coincidentally, I showed Lamine my Masters of Sabar book and he was surprised to see the subjects of the book, the Mbaye family, who had been his next door neighbors in the HLM 5 section of Dakar several years back.

The street noise of Dakar certainly has a unique feel to it. Throughout the day, hammering and clanking from people working in the dozens of nearby outdoor furniture workshops mix with the occasional bleating of sheep, and every few hours, the call to prayer is broadcast throughout the neighborhood by a muezzin from the mosque at the corner of the block. Every evening, and throughout much of the day during Friday and the weekends, you can hear amplified chants from the Tijaniya, one of many Sufi brotherhoods whose presence is felt throughout the city.


Just 4 You

The next night, Ngalla, Rich, Hiro and I hailed a cab and headed to a club called Just 4 You. Ibrahima and Ngalla both agreed that this would be a nice spot to go and get our feet wet. The club is a laid back place with lots of open air seating. We settled down under a giant palm tree and ordered a few beers (except for Ngalla, who, when asked if he would also like a beer, politely told the waiter “I obey the Koran”). The group on this particular night was that of Souleymane Faye, an excellent singer and guitarist who I was told has been prominent for at least 20 or 30 years. Faye’s singing was complimented by a live horn section with trumpet and trombone, an acoustic guitar player, injecting kora-like fills between Faye’s vocal phrases, bass, drums and percussionist Aziz Seck. While playing with Omar Pene and Super Diamono in the 70’s, Seck became the first drummer to introduce traditional percussion into popular music, a practice that is now ubiquitous.

Souleymane Faye – Aminta Ndiaye

The band switched effortlessly between blues, jazz, and down tempo mbalax/rock songs. Faye often alternated between Wolof and French, likely because of the notable presence of tourists like myself, and the second set ended with a mashup of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” and Fela Kuti’s “African Woman”. The highlight of the night for me was definitely the playing of Seck, and Rich was fortunate enough to capture a video of one of his solos (featured on an earlier post). In general, the music was more mellow than what I usually seek out, and at times it felt like some of the band was just going through the motions, but it was great to be able to see Faye, and an interesting contrast to the high powered barrage of percussion that would characterize the rest of the trip.

Make no mistake, there are enormous differences between Senegal and the United States.  You see it and feel it as soon as you step off the airplane.  All the senses are assaulted by unfamiliar stimuli and your brain cramps in attempting to process the flood of information Africa throws at it.  Eventually, you will get into the flow of it so that even if you’re not able to elegantly surf the waves at least you’re not drowning in the cultural undertow.  It is at this moment when you will notice the little differences.  As Vincent Vega (1994) so trenchantly observed, “They’ve got the same shit over there as we’ve got over here… it’s just a little different”.  I’m no Vincent Vega, but here are some little differences I’d like to share with you.

Remember these?

 

Yes, Africa still has these vile little tabs that litter the sidewalks and parking lots. The metal slivers quickly become part of the landscape and then when you’re least expecting it… Yow! Right into the soft meat of your foot.  In the US today pop tops only exist in an overplayed Jimmy Buffet song – extra points if any non-Floridians can name that tune.

On a related note, (beverages), in general the beer here is disappointing, (I am lucky enough to live in the land of beer back home), it’s pretty much just pale, straw colored Pilsners, more for thirst quenching than for savouring.  Way back when, I remember reading in a Michael Jackson book about a variety of Guiness only available in the tropics.  According to Jackson, this special Guiness is extra powerful in flavor, body, and alcohol, and stands in stark contrast to anything else you can find between Cancer and Capricorn.  This piqued my interest, but after having traveled to the tropics a few times and not finding it anywhere, I dismissed it as myth.  Well, my friends, I am happy to report that this special brew is not a myth.  Behold!

 

I’m stuffing 5 of them in my suitcase and crossing my fingers that Homeland Security isn’t thirsty.

As you might have already gathered, we have a consistent and fairly speedy internet connection here, but all is not simple when it comes to computers.  Check out his keyboard:

 

Luckily for me, most of the time I use a laptop with a qwerty keyboard, though all the programs, messages, webpages, and whatnots default to French.

Here’s another little difference, apparently the Senegalese don’t mind stooping to sweep, this is a typical broom:

 

Mops, however, are of the long handled variety.

Every day, a guy walks into the courtyard carrying 5 or 6 live chickens bound at the feet.  The residents look at each other, ask, “You want chicken tonight?” The vendor didn’t want his picture taken but set out the day’s offering for a portrait:

Eating dinner out of a communal dish with your hands, (often while sitting on the floor):

OK, I admit, those last two are not exactly little differences.  The chickens in the house and communal eating customs can be quite a culture shock to us sanitized, hermetically sealed Americans.  But that’s the thing about culture, it works for them.   Senegalese folks know how we eat in the West, they like their way better; they know how we procure our food, they prefer to know where their food comes from and have it fresh.  Besides, more than one person has said to me, “all food in Senegal is organic”.

Well folks, my time here in Senegal is rapidly coming to a close.  The problem is that I still have a lot more to write, so here’s the deal.  Once I return to the States, I’ll continue to send “dispatches” until I’ve covered the all highlights in a virtual extension of my trip.  When I’ve come to the conclusion I’ll let you know.  Until then keep checking in.  To bed now, bonne nuit!