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Dakar Diary: Journey to the Capital of African Pop

A week in the heartland of world music's most celebrated innovators

Western pop artists, from Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel to Dave Matthews and Vampire Weekend, have drawn inspiration from modern African pop. Veteran critic, journalist and MSN blogger Robert Christgau, long an ardent fan, recently traveled to Senegal to see and to experience a culture that never stops. Here is the first of two dispatches chronicling that trip.

I didn't spend the week of Nov. 7 in Dakar because I expected the music to be fabulous. If that had been the idea, I wouldn't have missed Saturday night to save on airfare, or picked the week Youssou N'Dour was in New York. Dakar is home to a lot of music I care about--N'Dour above all, the greatest pop musician alive as far as I'm concerned, followed by salsa-leaning Orchestra Baobab, the kings of the city until N'Dour's more distinctively Dakarois mbalax d them, then various lesser mbalax artists, plus Africa's most deeply engaged rap scene.

But where the music of neighboring Mali has become a major export, Senegal has something like a functional economy, and its capital is the most urbane urban place between Cairo and Pretoria. This makes Dakar the cultural capital of Francophone West Africa, especially with Abidjan ripped apart by the Ivory Coast's Christian-Muslim tensions, which the 95 percent Muslim Senegal is free of--in part because it's Sufi, Islam's most tolerant and also music-friendly strain. The city's status as a musical destination is secondary to this larger status.

My base in Dakar wasn't the Plateau, the downtown business district, or Les Almadies, whose beaches and villas attract vacationers and the local rich. It was an unpretentious neighborhood called Baobab, where my friend and ex-student Drew Hinshaw shares a small house with his fiancée, Celeste Mason. Drew covers Senegal for Bloomberg News, writes freelance music journalism, and speaks French and Wolof; Celeste teaches fourth-graders and is learning both. Since I read French fairly well but speak it hardly at all, Drew and usually Celeste were invaluable companions on my explorations. But music was my companion, too, whether there was a show to go to or not. There were fabulous moments. But what impressed me was how pervasive it was.

SUNDAY: Just in getting oriented come two exemplary lesser moments. As we wend through a poor neighborhood near the huge, North Korean-built African Renaissance Monument, four skinny young girls notice the three toubabs coming down their alley. Instantly they form a tiny dance ensemble, raising their hands to shoulder height and jutting their chests in what I'm later told is last spring's move. And at the jammed HLM market, where there are no CD stalls but four loudspeaker setups, three of them blast competing Youssou tracks that are complex and driving no matter how crackly. I own upwards of 20 N'Dour albums and Drew knows the recent hits--there's one about power outages. Neither of us recognizes a single song.

Sunday's only musical choice is open-air Just4U in the university district of Point E. Drew and Celeste saw Orchestra Baobab here just last night. The small mixed-race crowd includes a table that cheers on a mixed-race oud-trumpet-drum-vocal combo our waiter just calls "the Moroccans," then splits with the band when their 20-minute set is finally over. But musos keep drifting in as midnight approaches, and on comes guitar-bearing 35-year-old Fulani vocalist Alioune Guisse, fronting kora and synth, bass and gourds, and two excellent female harmony-and-response singers. Guisse has studied traditional music at Senegal's École des Arts, spent years in the U.S., and pursued trad-modern permutations throughout his marginal career--not a promising resume at a joint named after an imaginary Prince song.

But with his singers in sync and his brother-I-think scraping the gourds with a beaded device, he establishes a circular groove I hear as Malian, though it probably isn't. It's as trancelike as it's supposed to be, which doesn't always happen with such grooves, and for a while we're psyched. But our attention flags the way attention does when you haven't slept and can't understand the words, so we prepare to leave when the next song ends. Only it doesn't.

Unnoticed by me, the trance has become danceable, picking up half a notch as the backup singers power both tempo and melody. Dancers move forward, a few cavorting like those girls in the alley. Others cut steps in the rear. As the two women shout their hook, a tama drummer from nowhere beefs up the gourds. Twenty minutes in, I glance at my watch. It's 12:48. The song goes on until 12:56 with no sense of strain. I'm reminded not of Prince, but of P-Funk.

MONDAY: Lunch in the Plateau with two N'Dour connections who will hook me up all week. Ashley Maher is a singer-songwriter with an apartment in L.A., a son in Accra, and a 2008 album called Amina that's remarkably reminiscent of post-classic Joni Mitchell. She has a song on the European edition of N'Dour's Rakka Mi Rakka album and in 2008 joined him onstage at Bercy in Paris to dance sabar, the full-service version of the move those girls busted yesterday. Babacar Thiam is a round, smiling, voluble, high-voiced multitasker who road-managed N'Dour until 2008 and now runs several businesses, including Orchestra Baobab's career. He moved on after prying 125 visas from Senegal's bureaucracy in the month before Bercy.

TUESDAY: I ask Drew to try a number I have for Serigne MBacké Fall, the director of Groupe Walfadjri, a centrist-progressive news organization comprising radio and TV stations and a daily paper. I figure he'll blow us off but maybe take some questions later; instead he suggests dinner. Our connection is Rick Shain, a historian of Senegalese salsa, which with its synthesis of African rhythms and European sophistication was long the favored music of Senegal's post-independence elite. A conversation impeded by my lousy French and Fall's nonexistent English picks up when I recall the name of Kanda Bongo Man guitarist Diblo Dibala and his classic album Extra Ball, a title Fall writes in his notebook and underlines twice. He raves about a salsero unknown to me named Laba Sosseh; later Shain will send me an album whose heavy clave converts me pronto. Fall is a progressive who believes hip-hop is pop's only political hope but scorns samplers and keyboard beats. He's a media mogul who confesses that he can't watch TV at night because he's too busy with a record collection he enumerates down to the 45s. Driving us back to Baobab, he sticks an Orquesta Aragon CD in the slot. He knows every beat and dynamic twist as he sings along in unhalting Spanish.

WEDNESDAY: Music begins late in Dakar, so it's almost 2 when Drew, myself, and a young American experimental composer-conductor named Nathan Fuhr arrive at le Ravin in Guediawaye, a planned commuter town fallen on hard times. There's a racket going on as we duck down dark stairs to a dim open-air space, where atop the tuneless banging and ululation reigns a hefty woman in her 30s named Khady Mboup. Mboup says she sings goyane, from the Saloum delta south of Dakar. To me it sounds like Islamic devotional music that happens to be accompanied by a second female singer, four male drummers, two rhythm lutists, and a woman beating a plastic washtub with a special name--a pan. Only it's Islamic devotional music to which dozens of Africans are dancing sabar far more vigorously and lasciviously than at Just4U.

Sabar is a body dance, all improvised torso bends, arm twists, and leg raises. I'm not surprised when Ashley Maher gets up--she's a pro, with her own contained, confident, humorously unlascivious style. Nor am I surprised when Groupe Goorgoorlu, three male dancers with whom she's been shooting an AIDS video, elaborate the music with indescribable rhythmic contortions. What surprises me is that avant-gardist Fuhr dances sabar too, and with panache, cockily mimicking, if not quite matching, Goorgoorlu shape for shape and gesture for gesture. As an elder, I'm exempted from the competition; approached by several cleavage-flaunting celebrants, young Drew boogies and bears it. The hour-plus set is both foreign and mortal enough to lose me at times, and eventually what seemed surreally intense normalizes. But in a lifetime of going out to music, this ranks with the most unlikely shows I've seen--dozens of African men and women in a disintegrating housing development seeking late-night transcendence whose full emotional--or is it spiritual import?--I wouldn't dare guess.

Between sets, Drew and Nathan remember that they have to work in the morning. It's around 3:30. I would have stayed, I swear it.

Continue reading Part II.

MSN Music, December 30, 2010