Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

Rock & Roll &

Estudando Tom Zé

Dakar is a metropolis situated on the westernmost tip of continental Africa that's regarded as exceptionally "modern." With a population of about three million, it is the capital of Senegal, a Muslim nation of 12 million whose religious orientation is Sufi, whose lingua franca is Wolof, whose official language is French, and whose first president, Léopold Senghor, was both a distinguished French poet and a founder of the Négritude movement. In addition to Senghor and the self-educated novelist-turned-filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Senegal produced the seminal Afrocentric historian and perennial Senghor opponent Cheikh Anta Diop, after whom the national university is named, and many musicians, most prominently the singer-bandleader Youssou N'Dour, who rose from the downtown slum of Medina to take percussive Wolof mbalax to preeminence in Dakar and renown 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 dipped into Afropop because I felt I owed it to the African-American music I'd loved forever, I ended up a bigger fan than most African-Americans, and soon felt I owed it to Afropop to learn more about Africa. But the specific attraction wasn't N'Dour, who as it happens was in New York the week I was in Dakar. It was Bloomberg News's Drew Hinshaw, who I taught six years ago as an NYU recorded music major. Having reviewed hundreds of African albums and read close to 100 books, I had spent all of five days in Africa, covering 1995's Francophone MASA festival in Côte d'Ivoire, where I watched shows and attended panels in a five-star hotel. This time I got to spend a week with Drew and his fiancée Celeste Mason in the modest Dakar neighborhood of Sicap Baobab--not the skylined downtown Plateau to the south or ritzy, touristic Les Almadies up north. 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 still walk. Baobab was made for that.

While still largely Senegalese and Muslim, Baobab attracts many immigrants from Cape Verde and Francophone West Africa, and compared to the slums I glimpsed and the shantytowns I didn't, where many residents risk their lives to emigrate illegally to Europe in fishing pirogues, the population is middle class--nearby houses were small but walled, with four or five cars in the big sandlot they surrounded. But the lady next door sold coffee out front, and on the busier streets many homes doubled as tiny shops crammed with groceries, clothing, electronics, hardware, and dry goods. Drew bought 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 neighbor he passed. He was Doudou Ndiaye--"DR" is hard to pronounce in Wolof. I was his professeur, Baba Ndiaye. Ndiaye, notes Eric S. Ross, is "one of the most common and aristocratic Senegalese family names."

Although usually we hailed cabs, Drew and I took enough long walks that I started dusting my black sneakers. So my feet were definitely on the ground. But how much good that could do my head was limited--the most rudimentary comprehension of such a foreign place takes longer than the week I'd carved out. The tolerable pre-harmattan heat, the omnipresent red dirt, the to-and-fro of the street, the potholed roads and toxic exhausts, the sea bordering the best highway and worst slum I saw, and the bright sun eased by the stored humidity of the huge old tree that gave the nabe its name--these remained hyper-real.

I'd been beefing up my booklist: with Eric Ross's solidly utilitarian Culture and Customs of Senegal, Edward Miguel's hopeful pan-African Africa's Turn?, Fatou Diome's pained, lyrical emigration novel The Belly of the Atlantic, and most memorably Cheikh Hamidou Kane's 1962 Ambiguous Adventure, a sere, spare, consciously Dostoyevskyan demonstration of the humane subtlety of Islamic thought that's both head-clearing and mind-boggling--and that now joins Sembene's God's Bits of Wood and Ahmadou Kourouma's Monnew in my private pantheon of great-not-good West African novels. True, once on the ground I started to suspect that reading could do little more than precede the physical experience. Yet in the end three three-syllable words I'd learned helped shape my perceptions: Tabaski, talibe, teranga.

Tabaski is the big Muslim feast day set for just after I left, so that Dakar teemed with the goatlike sheep every family was expected to buy--an obligation sure to increase scamming, Drew reminded us after declining to open the gate Sunday night to someone selling . . . tablecloths?? While for Ross "talibe" merely signifies any Sufi sheikh's disciple, Lonely Planet's Katharina Lobeck Kane knows that the term now usually signifies child beggars enslaved by sadistic marabouts, another term that's become increasingly pejorative. Although in August 84-year-old president Abdoulaye Wade cracked down on these kids (not, natch, the creeps who beat them if they don't make their quota), they remained out there, the only street hustlers in Baobab--reminders that, even in a forward-looking nation like Senegal, the gains in democratic governance, Asian aid, oil windfalls, and micro-finance cited by Edward Miguel have yet to touch most Africans. As for teranga, that's what the Senegalese call their ethos of hospitality. Various sources prepared me for a city full of tall young men taking my measure every five steps, and in the Plateau there were quite a few, although a simple "non merci" usually turned them away. But teranga proved the norm.

I don't want to get gooey--some of my contacts may have treated me like a bigshot just because I'm a journalist. But that could have been teranga too. It was certainly teranga when Baobabans I'd never exchanged a parole with bid me au revoir as I wheeled my suitcase through the dust to go home. 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 lost after being stared down to 2000 CFAs by an employee of N'Dour's Medina radio station assigned to get me to his Almadies television station.

I was touring N'Dour's Futurs Média, which also includes one of Dakar's better newspapers, because for me the finest musician in the world proved inescapable. Three different, striking, and unfamiliar Youssou songs blared from three of the four sound systems we passed in the packed HLM market Sunday. Monday I called sabar-dancing, L.A.-based singer-songwriter Ashley Maher, who N'Dour's American associate Thomas Rome had recommended as a guide 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. In the month before N'Dour's big 2008 concert at Paris's Bercy arena, he told us in a story he visibly relished, Thiam obtained 125 visas in a month for the N'Dour entourage. Scoring one visa in a month is an achievement in Dakar. Thiam left N'Dour's employ shortly after this feat.

But though N'Dour's network took up much of my interviewing time, his Thiossane club was dark as usual, and the music I found elsewhere included no true mbalax. Maybe it could have; maybe I should have sought out Thione Seck's suburban venue, although Drew and Celeste thought he was on automatic when they'd seen him. But I have bigger regrets, like not organizing a disco night because I didn't feel like staying up till 4 three nights running, or not meeting any rappers because the only number I had was for Ndongo of the suspiciously ingratiating Daara J. And I nevertheless remain suitably awestruck by the four shows I did get to. None were perfect. All lifted into exemplary highs.

The first and last were at a roofed outdoor club near the university called Just4U--a toubab place on name alone, yet also a musicians' hangout. Around midnight Sunday, high-pitched, nasal Alioune Guisse took the stage backed by a part-electric, part-acoustic band and two female singers and established a hypnotic groove more trad than I'd expected and more gripping than I expect trad to be. But when the songs wore down after the first two, my body reminded me where it had woken up the day before. Just one more, I told Drew, and so it was--only the one more lasted half an hour. There was no escape as the tempo quickened and the call-and-response hooked in and dancers arose from the audience and a tama drummer ambled onstage 15 minutes in. We left when it was finally over on the theory that Guisse couldn't top it soon--and that if he could, we'd best beat a retreat while the beating was good.

The three other shows were similarly remarkable and remarkably dissimilar, none more than Maher pick Khady Mboup in the rough suburb of Guediawaye, where the red-lit, open-air Le Ravin was big enough for a wedding or a Koranic school, both of which the music suggested. A statuesque woman in an orange headscarf wailing and expostulating over an ensemble comprising a second female singer, two guys plucking traditional lutes, four male hand drummers, and a woman beating a plastic washtub, it was as Islamic-sounding as any music I've heard in a popular setting, yet unmistakably secular as its din inspired half the 50-strong crowd to the distorted postures and wild jumps and flails of sabar. On Friday, a supremely bored band backed a dreadful singer-songwriter in an Almadies boite for 45 minutes, then leaped to life when headliner Awadi vaulted onstage for trilingual rapping that rocked hardest of all in Wolof, whose gutturals are an ideal hip-hop sonic. A monologue about power outages turning Dakar into a vast disco of twinkling lights had Drew chuckling as he tried to translate. But well before he was done, it was down to Just4U to catch Yoro Ndiaye.

This bearer of that common yet aristocratic surname is a 2011 globalFEST selection whose "acoustic mbalax," to borrow Maher's evocative if not strictly factual phrase, had been warmly recommended by three sources. Drew and I listened respectfully--Ndiaye's tenor has character, his electric guitarist knows harmony, etc. Only then came a finale where one guest trumped another--first a blind powerhouse we were instructed to cheer because he "didn't have his sheep yet," then a light-skinned, straight-wigged sexpot, then a skullcapped elder who augured high seriousness and delivered wisecracks that sidled past the language barrier as well as the strongest vocal equipment I heard in Senegal, only to be followed by an older elder whose equally piercing voice was more sparingly deployed. Good taste morphed into high excitement as all these characters came and went.

These shows were all imperfect, including Mboup's, which really did reduce to din at times. But as if to illustrate the truism about African music being part of everyday life, the imperfection was built in. What's less of a truism is that some consummation more uplifting than perfection was also part of the deal. I might have done as well in Lagos or Kinshasa, at least in theory--neither is as livable as Dakar, and neither's nightlife is bulked up by tourist CFAs. But in Nigeria and Congo, the aesthetic is animistic with a thin Christian overlay. Senegal is Muslim--also French-secular, that's important, but fundamentally Muslim. In a moment when too much Islam is reactionary and too many Euro-American reactionaries can't tell one Muslim from another, 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 is no longer the doomed charnel house of the '90s. But though I was intrigued to learn that Parisians seeking computer assistance are as likely to reach Dakar as New Yorkers are Mumbai, it's probably not happenstance that Senegal is barely mentioned, because it's been slipping--since 2000, when Wade became the rare African leader who wasn't Nelson Mandela to assume power after a fair election, the only progress has been a 2004 peace agreement with rebels in Casamance. Even the scrupulously uncontroversial Ross feels constrained to mention "declining purchasing power" and young citizens "disillusioned with politics."

Still, Senegal has slipped in part because it had somewhere to slip from, and though music scenes aren't representative cross-sections anywhere on earth, this one was varied enough to reinforce my general impression that the slippage hasn't been cultural. To start, a Muslim music scene is something reactionaries on both sides consider a contradiction in terms. Senegal's reflects its Europhile history and its intra-African multiculturalism--Alioune Guisse is Fulani, Khady Mboup Serere--as well as the Sufi practice of integrating music into worship. But these things are always complicated. Though mbalax artists including N'Dour have long recorded praisesongs to sheikhs and marabouts, Senegal's Islamic establishment was outraged by his 2005 Egypt, which celebrated all of his nation'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 a marabout who sends his young talibes out begging is a heroic figure and an intellectually questing Islam that impels the same marabout to approve a European education for his finest student. Egypt emerged from that conflict. So did the connotative evolution of the word "marabout."

The Senegal I observed was simultaneously secular and devout. Markets didn't close down at prayer time, but they eased up; drivers rolled out their prayer rugs along the seaside corniche. The only drunk I encountered all week was hustled away by the Mourides who ran the bus stop where he accosted me; Just4U sold lots of water and soft drinks; neither of the Muslims with whom I shared meals partook of any of Senegal's three excellent beers. Renting his house, Drew had been warned that Baobab was "a little dangerous" because "there are lots of Christians there"--and Christians, of course, drink. That story got the only laugh I could elicit from an evangelical missionary I interviewed, who readily acknowledged that Senegal's reputation for tolerance was well-earned.

The missionary forgot to mention that tolerance doesn't extend to homosexuals. But though I'm sure women are still often subjugated, especially outside the cities, I saw little veiling and a great many working women, most strikingly at N'Dour's TV station. There progress was long impeded by Wade, who tried to deny N'Dour a licence to broadcast from the facility he'd sunk serious capital into. After a year of string-pulling and rumors that N'Dour would run for president, he was permitted to go live on condition that the content be strictly "cultural," a term his exceedingly bright and young staff proceeded to interpret as broadly as Raymond Williams. Programming includes a newsmagazine, a weekend show in which political figures often discuss the meaning of "culture," and much hip-hop, which many Wolof speakers regard as the political future of Senegalese pop.

Maybe, maybe not. Having seen the excellent Awadi stir up the whitest audience I joined all week, I wonder how many slum dwellers get to watch N'Dour's station. Nor is it likely that the finest pop musician in the world can therefore be an effective political leader--or that he has any intention of trying, though Wade is so despised I hope somebody does. But in my rudimentary way, I still left Senegal more encouraged than I arrived. We secular humanists believe that everyday life with a few highs is all any belief system can be expected to provide.

Barnes & Noble Review, December 20, 2010