Drumbeats and heartstrings: tuning in to the rhythms of Senegal
Dakar thrums to the nightly rhythms of musicians — a galaxy of politically engaged performers drawing on Senegal’s rich oral traditions and legendary reputation for jazz.
It’s approaching midnight on a velvety Dakar night, and a superstar-to-be is turning my world upside down.
His name is Elhadj A Tiaré, aka Ashs the Best, and he’s wowing the audience at Théâtre de Verdure with soulful ballads sung in the city’s lingua franca, Wolof. But Elhadj is no conventional crooner — what sets him apart are the turn-on-a-sixpence forays into hip hop, reggae, Latin jazz and gospel. He switches styles as smoothly as other singers change tempo or key and, somehow, it just works. Suddenly, the idea of single-genre music seems totally passé.
Born in 1995, this dazzling Senegalese musician grew up in the Dakar suburb of Pikine and turned professional while still a teenager. Tonight, he exudes confident geek-chic, complete with wire-framed spectacles and the kind of hand-painted tabard-and-trousers ensemble that suggests he hangs out with arty fashionistas.
If you’ve yet to hear a track by Ashs the Best, don’t worry: you soon will. He was a finalist in the 2021 Prix Découvertes RFI (Radio France Internationale) talent competition for emerging French-speaking African singers, and judging by tonight’s ultracool set, he’ll go far. “It was my father who inspired me to become a performer,” he tells me later. “He played in a famous Senegalese reggae band, Niominka Bi, mashing up African and Jamaican sounds. I worshipped him.”
I’ve come to Senegal in search of great music and stimulating culture, and to be honest, I didn’t expect to get as lucky as this. It’s been years since my last visit, and I’ve heard that live gigs can be tricky to pin down these days. And yet here I am, hanging out with an appreciative, cosmopolitan crowd under a mighty fromager tree in a tranquil city garden, listening to one of the nation’s brightest young stars. It’s great to be back.
Unlocking the city
Almost three decades ago, I fell in love with Senegalese sounds: Orchestra Baobab’s iconic Afro-Cuban dance numbers, Baaba Maal’s Fulani blues, Cheikh Lô’s rootsy jazz and the silvery tenor voice of Youssou N’Dour. In the 1990s and 2000s, during several periods spent living, working and travelling in West Africa, the effervescent music scene held me fast. Senegal, in particular, with its close cultural connections to Arab and Amazigh North Africa and Latin-tinged Cape Verde, is lit by a galaxy of musical stars. The greats aren’t merely entertainers, but jalis (hereditary praise-singers) who treasure their craft.
Senegal’s musicians are both oral historians and, increasingly, activists, campaigning for human rights, climate justice and international cooperation. At the 2022 European Union – African Union summit, Youssou N’Dour spoke eloquently about music’s power to bring nations together, just like sport does. “No matter if we don’t speak the same language; music, it’s everyone’s first language,” he said. The man who once ran for the Senegalese presidency is also passionate about education and training, reflecting that “if every young African had savoir-faire, nobody would try to leave”. Baaba Maal, meanwhile, works with the UN to combat deforestation and desertification. They, and their peers, are powerful spokespeople for what they call New Africa: a dynamic, youthful society that faces severe economic and environmental challenges, but refuses to abandon hope.
The ugly-beautiful coastal capital of Dakar is ground zero for these activist-musicians. Here, there’s music everywhere — playing on shop counter radios, drifting down from apartment windows and blaring out of battered yellow taxis. Sadly, however, since bands began discovering they can earn good money from private events and endorsements, Dakar’s legendary live music venues have mostly disappeared. Restaurants, bars and cultural centres such as the Institut Français often host gigs, but they’re typically not announced until the last minute.
For those who love experiencing cities ‘like a local’ and consider concert-hopping a superb way to travel, this may sound frustrating. But it’s better, perhaps, to think of Dakar’s music scene as a treasure hunt. In the absence of official listings, you need a finger on the pulse. During my stay, I work my phone hard (and cultivate local contacts) to discover who’s playing and which venues have decent acoustics.
Hip hop and reggae are huge here. To dive in, it’s well worth visiting the House of Urban Cultures, via social media or in person at its building in Ouakam, north west of the historic centre. Founded in 2018, it’s a workspace for budding musicians, beatboxers, DJs, photographers, street artists and fashion designers. Alternatively, for more traditional music and jazz dinner gigs, coastal road Corniche Ouest is a good place to start: try beach restaurants La Mer à Table or Chez Fatou in Almadies, clubby Casamundi, the swish Pullman Dakar Teranga hotel, characterful Hotel Le Djoloff or breezy Phare des Mamelles, a 19th-century former lighthouse that’s now a restaurant and bar.
“I love the Institut Français, because it’s in a residential area, so they start and finish relatively early”, says the French expat sitting next to me at the Théâtre de Verdure, the Institut’s intimate outdoor venue. “Most Dakar concerts take place so late at night that we see traffic jams at three, four or even five in the morning.”
With its modernist architecture, down-to-earth places to eat and treasure-stuffed curio shops, Dakar is a great place to explore in daylight hours, too. It accommodates all sorts, from peanut sellers and boat builders to haughty design divas and consultant types. In recent years, bold steps have been taken to update its infrastructure and honour its heritage. Some projects, such as the sorely needed revamp of its rail network, are eminently pragmatic. Some are gauche, like Pierre Goudiaby’s African Renaissance Monument, the continent’s tallest and most ludicrously extravagant statue. Others are poignant, such as the fight to save Île de Gorée from being nibbled away by marine erosion. A short boat trip from the city centre, this island was once a notorious slave centre. Now, it’s a site of remembrance, and home to a tranquil artistic community.
Surely Dakar’s most inspired heritage project is the Museum of Black Civilisations, which opened in 2018. I spend an entire afternoon in its ambitious galleries, joining the dots between Egyptian mathematics and Ethiopian architecture, and admiring a jaw-dropping collection of African art, from Bambara masks and Congolese reliquaries to the darkly enigmatic photographs of Laeïla Adjovi, the grand prix winner at the 2018 Dak’Art Biennale.
Of lions and kings
A surefire way to catch a great live show in Dakar is to visit during a public holiday or celebration, when stages pop up in the city centre or at Dakar Arena, 18 miles east of the city centre. And I’m in luck. To widespread joy, Senegal’s national football team made it to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations shortly before I arrived.
The Teranga Lions are to line up against Egypt on the pitch tomorrow. Leaving the Institut Français, I hurtle along the Corniche Ouest to Place du Souvenir Africain, a public square facing the inky Atlantic. Commissioned by former president Abdoulaye Wade, its plaza, statues and colonnades are a bold 21st-century monument to African heroes — among them martyrs, activists, anti-slavery crusaders and artists. Tonight, it’s hosting a celebration of the Lions’ achievements so far.
I’m just in time. It’s 1.20am, and Africa’s best-known living singer is about to take to the stage. Coloured beams of light rake the sky, spotlights sweep across ecstatic faces and drones hover overhead, beaming footage to giant screens. When at last Youssou N’Dour steps into the spotlight, his home crowd roars with adoration. Fast-paced, high-pitched sabar drumbeats ricochet across the square and everyone, without exception, starts dancing like the whole world is watching. Starved of major live events for almost two years, this music mad city is devouring tonight’s concert whole.
N’Dour, the ‘king of mbalax’, and his band, Le Super Étoile de Dakar, typically play live in their home city a mere half a dozen times a year. When the singer announced this show on social media, just one week in advance, he promised ‘une soirée explosive’. It’s the third of a short run, and far more than just a gig: with the Lions in the final and the latest Covid-19 wave waning, it’s a victory rally, an act of defiance and a celebration of life itself.
The band are on exuberant form, blending virtuoso percussion with nimble guitar, trumpet, trombone and sax. N’Dour, meanwhile, is a force of nature. Tonight, he’s rocking his own brand of geek-chic, eschewing the traditional embroidered damask grand boubou robe he often wears for a neatly tailored black suit, white shirt and dark tie. It’s a sober look for the sixtysomething star, but he’s still got the voice, the moves and that unmistakable smile.
As they power through their set — all three hours of it — the crowd is jubilant. However, many of them aren’t facing the band and its megastar frontman. Instead, with their backs to the stage and their arms raised, they’re dancing and singing along, videoing their snazziest moves on their phones.
“Don’t be surprised!” said Dudu Sarr, N’Dour’s international manager, when we chatted before the concert. “We Senegalese have our own way of enjoying a great night out. We’re not there to sit quietly. We want to take part, we’re really into social media and we love sharing the whole experience. It’s a kind of teranga,” he says referring to the word that represents the Senegalese spirit of hospitality and generosity.
Tonight’s concert was billed as a VIP event, and the attendees are immaculately groomed: the men in sharp denim and baseball caps, the women in figure-hugging Lycra, gravity-defying eyelashes, glitzy earrings and killer heels. They ooze confidence and style, and when the besequined dancers on stage start twerking to the feverish twang of the tama (also known as the talking drum), they go absolutely wild.
Buoyed by their happiness and pride, I dread the crushing disappointment that the football final might bring. But my fears prove groundless. The moment that Liverpool FC striker Sadio Mané scores the winning penalty for Senegal the following evening, Dakar erupts with joy. Horns blare, drums are beaten, fireworks crack and an impromptu carnival of ecstatic music and mayhem blazes through the city, long into the night.
Old ways, new energy
Leaving Dakar on a high, I head south to Casamance — a swathe of bush and beach between the Gambia River and the slow-moving Casamance River. I have idyllic memories of this rural region’s endless sands, glossy creeks, laid-back villages and tremendous baobabs, as old and grey as time itself. On my long-ago visits, it was easy to love its open-hearted, outdoor way of life, chatting with friends and strangers under mango trees while firefinches and bulbuls chirped all around.
Isolated by largely historic separatist troubles, southern Senegal receives fewer visitors than it deserves.
Although largely Jola-speaking, you’ll often hear Mandinka here too, and like The Gambia and Mali, it’s home to talented korafola (players of the kora: a stringed instrument with a long neck and a hide-covered calabash gourd resonator). I’m hoping to hear some — or, better still, try my hand at playing.
But when I ask around about lessons, to my surprise the person that keeps coming up isn’t Senegalese, or even one from neighbouring Gambia. He’s Welsh. Perhaps, given that the kora is the Manding answer to the Celtic harp, I shouldn’t be taken aback. Pa Bobo Jobarteh, a kora musician from one of The Gambia’s great devotional jali dynasties, puts my mind at rest. “Adam Doughty is a genuinely good player who respects our heritage, and promotes it,” he says. “He’s not a jali — he didn’t learn the tunes as a baby and start playing them as a boy — but that actually helps make him a good teacher. He understands what it feels like to approach the kora as a stranger and learn everything from scratch.”
I feel instantly at home at The Kora Workshop, Adam’s simple, eco-friendly garden reserve in coastal Kafountine. Positively steeped in teranga, it offers homestays, complete with basic facilities and food: think bucket showers, compost loos, solar lanterns and communal platters of homemade thieboudienne, the blend of lightly spiced fish, vegetables and rice that’s Senegal’s favourite dish.
It’s rustic, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Lush with orange trees, palms and evergreen shrubs, the garden is busy with birds: golden orioles trill merrily, doves coo and paradise flycatchers flit with liquid grace through the trees. Adam and his partner, Kath Pickering, live here for six months of the year, sharing it with a coterie of local workers and artisans, a motley assortment of cats, some fellow music fans and visiting kora students like me.
When I first hold a kora on my knees and gently pluck its strings, I can barely hold back the tears. I’ve loved this magnificent but challenging instrument for so long that my husband and I invited a jali to play at our wedding. Traditionally, nobody but jalis are supposed to play the kora, and until recently, jalis were always men. Such conventions are fading, but I never thought I’d have the courage to give the instrument a try.
The technique is unlike anything I’ve tried before. “Just relax,” says Adam. “Everyone finds it hard at first. But it will come.” Within a few days, under his patient instruction, I can pick out the chords of Kelefa Ba, a classic beginners’ tune.
Between lessons, I chat with the artisans, including woodcarver Maissa Ndong and potter Souadou Coly, who works in a yard shaded by cashew trees. Sometimes, I simply wander the village’s sandy streets, enjoying the scents of outdoor cooking and sun-warmed tropical herbs.
As I walk, I’m clocking what’s changed since my last visit — fewer trees, more motorbikes, more phones.
And also what’s delightfully familiar, including the tomato vendors who stack their wares into pyramids and the corner shops selling ice pops: knotted bags of frozen baobab juice and hibiscus cordial. While the fishing beach is busier, the work follows the same ancient rhythm it always has: brightly painted pirogues bob just offshore and muscular men hurry through the breakers to offload the catch, crate by crate, shouldering it up the sand and hurling it onto tarpaulins.
It’s almost time for Kafountine’s carnival, and in the afternoons, the sound of whistles, drums and laughter draws me to a clearing where local dance troupe Hamaké Kalone are practising. I’m hoping I’ll see a masquerade. It’s still a popular tradition, Kath tells me, featuring scary-hilarious, haystack-like kumpo dancers and scary kankurangs, machete-wielding masked figures dressed in leaves. Once, their job was to exorcise evil spirits, but this has since evolved.
“In lockdown, the community called in the kankurangs to persuade people to comply,” says Kath.
On my final day, a pair of refreshingly unscary masqueraders are cavorting in the village, delighting local kids. Soon, the carnival will begin — and not just here in Kafountine. With the Africa Cup of Nations in the bag and young artists finding their feet, I can sense a growing energy, deep in Senegal’s soul. It’s thrilling to be here for the first few beats of the drum.
Getting there & around
Nonstop flights from London to the Senegal-Gambia region land in Banjul, in The Gambia. Titan Airways and TUI Airways fly from Gatwick; The Gambia Experience offers flights and packages.
Average flight time: 6h30m.
TAP Air Portugal, Royal Air Maroc and Brussels Airlines fly to Dakar with one stop via their hubs. Average flight time: 7h40m.
A taxi ride from Dakar to Banjul takes six to eight hours; two-three hours from Banjul to Kafountine. It’s possible to fly between Dakar and Banjul (for Kafountine): a 40-minute trip with Air Senegal.
When to go
November to June, when temperatures average 25C. Rainy season, July to October, sees temperatures exceeding 30C, with humidity and thunderstorms.
Where to stay
Pullman Dakar Teranga, from £234, B&B.
Hotel Le Djoloff, Dakar. From £63, room only.
The Kora Workshop, Kafountine from £410 all-inclusive.
How to do it
Native Eye offers 10-day group cultural tours of Senegal, including Dakar and Casamance, from £2,399 per person, excluding international flights.
Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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