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Dakar Diary Part II: 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.

Read Part I.

THURSDAY: While Drew writes, I try to make sense of the radio. Unable to understand the announcers, who range from sober to hyper just like in the States, I can't locate N'Dour's or Walfadjri's stations, but find that the American pop-rap Drew says dominates the discos comes up no more often than traditional grooves like Guisse's or true Islamic devotional music, which proves much graver than what I heard last night, not to mention has no drums.

I confine the day's research to N'Dour's broadcasting operation, with essential help from Thiam--whether I'm messing up the place, the time, or my cell phone, Babacar is on his own phone bailing me out. First I taxi mistakenly to the radio station, located up narrow stairs in N'Dour's crowded old Medina hood, which provides quite a contrast to the spacious new TV facility in Les Almadies. There my guide is Patrick Thomas, an articulate young Liberian who entered N'Dour's employ shortly after approaching him at a concert. Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade tried to deny N'Dour a satellite license, acceding only after N'Dour agreed to stick to "cultural" programming. But as Thomas introduces me to reporters, presenters, and techs--from not just Senegal but Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, all under 35 except for a Belgian cameraman my age--they've clearly figured out that culture doesn't just mean "the arts." It means the whole life of a people. Do they do sports? Comedy? Sure. But also an "information magazine" and wide-ranging talk shows. And though they're owned by the king of mbalax, a lot of hip-hop.

FRIDAY: In the Medina market we find a CD stall selling crude bootlegs for 1,000 CFAs--about two bucks. I'm happy with new mbalax siren Viviane Chedid and a board tape from one of N'Dour's Senegalese concerts. But the prize is a Youssou album featuring titles I don't recognize. It's not like I have much memory for Wolof, but this time a Web search reveals that I've purchased an approximation of the Senegal-only Alssaama. Although collectors pretend N'Dour's Senegal-only music is his truest, I believe he put Alssaama's two best songs on his worldwide Rakka Mi Rakka. But it's cool to have the others.

Everyone has told me N'Dour guitarist Mamadou Jimi Mbaye is a helluva guy, and that figures--why else would his not terribly well-sung 1997 "Dakar Heart" inspire such word-of-mouth? And when Ashley Maher reports that Mbaye, who played on her album Amina, is back from Europe, I find that he's a helluva guy: gracious, candid, palpably intelligent. Although he has plenty of catching up to do with his two wives and newborn seventh child, he spends an hour with us, during which he nails a Bob Marley song, shows off his karate, and praises the politics of Senegalese hip-hop with fewer reservations than his contemporary Serigne MBacké Fall and with special praises for the legendary '90s duo, Positive Black Soul. He's also surprisingly critical of his boss of 30 years. Although Mbaye gives me permission to quote him if I see fit--"We'll have an argument, but it will be all right"--I have no desire to make trouble in the best band in the world, so I won't go into detail beyond one brief sentence: "He likes power." Back home, "Dakar Heart" starts sounding good. So does an advance of his forthcoming "Khare Dounya," Auto-Tune and all.

Our scheduled entertainment is the well-regarded Yoro Ndiaye at Just4U, only Celeste latches onto a hot rumor: At Le Blue Note in Almadies, Awadi, who was half of Positive Black Soul, who Mbaye was just extolling, is playing. Can't skip that. The delay that ensues after we pay 5,000 CFAs for an 11 o'clock show has nothing to do with what toubabs like to call "African time." It's rock club time in its purest form, so that when the music finally begins at 12:05, we're stuck with not Awadi but a guitar-strummer in striped shirt and red Cons who for 40 minutes projects the soul-claiming self-regard that afflicts purveyors of musical sensitivity the world over. Soul-sapping though it is, this ordeal has the healthy side effect of deromanticizing Dakar, a place modern enough to have its own wankers. And in a departure from rock club time, there's no intermission--Awadi fronts the same band as the guitar-strummer, and they're so glad to see him that their groove roars and darkens the moment he hops onstage and pumps out his harsh staccato. Due at Just4U, Drew and I see half of a set Celeste tells us never faltered. She also buys me a 1,000-CFA CD, the trilingual, pan-African Présidents d'Afrique, which, as rarely happens when rappers go solo, is both rougher and more sophisticated than his group work. There's still the language problem that undercuts all international hip-hop crossovers, and Le Blue Note, after all, is a plush room full of toubabs. But if N'Dour's people hope to shake things up with homegrown hip-hop, music like Awadi's is why.

A personable, even-keeled low tenor of about 35 who'll hit this year's globalFEST in New York Jan. 9, Yoro Ndaiye is the kind of well-spoken guy world music tastemakers love. Slicker than Alioune Guisse, he's also solider and somewhat less trad, featuring a broadly schooled guitarist and an accomplished trap drummer who's nevertheless less impressive than Awadi's trap drummer. (Suspect African pop has stagnated along with its economy? Twenty years ago the continent's only kitmaster of note was Fela's Tony Allen.) Just4U is almost full as we squeeze into the back of a Hi-NRG finale that has Ashley high-stepping up front. And though the population density has decreased by the 2 o'clock set, the place is still hopping. Gradually, Drew and I are won over by Ndiaye's musicality, and also by the big wooden balafon, an instrument that at its best sounds like a king-size xylophone with its tinkle dampened by packed earth.

Then there's another long WTF moment. As the finale begins, a very black, fairly tall, slightly hunched blind man of 45 or 50 comes onstage. There's banter from Ndiaye as he shrugs to the music, but when he opens up and sings, he's got the stuff. Only soon he pales before the overt sexuality of cafe-au-lait young soprano Aida Samb, who is in turn topped by a brown-skinned fiftysomething in maroon skullcap and beige boubou who appears sedate, proves hilarious, and casually unleashes a throbbing baritone that blows the house down--only he's then run through by a senior citizen who understands that when you're old enough you can dumbfound the juveniles with just a few well-timed remnants of potency. Ndiaye later would fret to Maher that he should be tougher with guest performers. I think they made the night.

SATURDAY: On my last day, Babacar Thiam, who has been promising Orchestra Baobab all week, crams Drew, Celeste, myself, and himself into a cab that takes us to the handsome middle-class home of original member Rudy Gomis. Gomis and fellow vocalist Balla Sidibe have been in Baobab since 1970, as have the two absent members: crowd-pleasing saxophonist Issa Cissoko and, crucially, guitarist-mastermind Barthelemy Attisso, who still practices law in Togo, as he has since the band broke up in 1988. With Gomis and a few others flexing their English and Babacar and Drew translating, we have a warm hourlong conversation. Baobab are working on a new album that will feature American admirers Dave Matthews, Trey Anastasio, and hopefully Carlos Santana. Good move. But I'm more struck by the tale of how they reconvened. Baobab disbanded when their salsa variant, which dance nuts like Serigne Fall complain is too slow and I find gripping, even hypnotic, was rendered commercially obsolete by N'Dour's mbalax. They regrouped at the behest of World Circuit's Nick Gold, who gave the world music circuit Buena Vista Social Club. Problem was Attisso, thriving 1,400 miles east of Dakar, wasn't interested. So Youssou N'Dour called him up. You have to come back, N'Dour told him. Baobab can be a great band again. He was right, too--they've never been better. Obviously the man likes power. But pretty often he does good with it.

The three of us have dinner in the Plateau across the street from the Institut Francais, where a poetry slam I won't understand is scheduled. But in one of the rare instances of African time I encounter all week, it's late getting started. So we return to Baobab and play music I've brought till I have to go to the airport. Baobab's 1970 album, definitely. But also American hip-hop and then John Prine and Brad Paisley. We're in Dakar, and it all sounds great.

MSN Music, January 7, 2011