Trip Report by Rosalind Loveluck who joined our Never mind the Mbalax trip to Senegal.
'Wau, Wau, Wau!!' to this tour! 'Wau' is 'Yes' in Wolof and very much a 'Wow' in English! A small group of 6 were expertly initiated and guided into the cultural & musical sides of Senegal by our knowledgeable tour leader Bram Posthumus, driven safely & comfortably by the excellent Mamadou for much of the time.
From the tranquillity of hilltop or coastal restaurants with delicious food, river trip bird watching and visiting artists at work through to the hyper-bustling aromatic markets and the bewitching mbalax beats, this tour had a bit of everything. I had hoped for the exotic & different and I got it.
Dakar is definitely where it all happens on a music front, and like most cities in the developing world is full of contrasts, often juxtaposed, from the modern music venues & stylish restaurants to the traditional village homes and sandy streets.
Our 200 mile drive north to Saint-Louis was far more comfortable than I'd expected, owing to a newly-built road with 98% fewer potholes than we currently have in the UK! Stopping off to not only view but actually clamber inside some baobab trees in the emerging savannah landscape was great as long as you didn't mind sharing the space with the resident bats!
In each city and on the beautiful Ile de Goree we had local guides to take us round and show us the highlights - some like the House of Slaves in Goree particularly thought-provoking. Sharif in Dakar was amazingly good and gave us insight & context into the political and cultural aspects of the country and inspiring a couple of the men in the group to go shopping for traditional dress similar to his own! The young guide in Saint-Louis had a harder time of it with us, as we seemed to get easily distracted by and diverted into the inviting little shops en route! I'm not really sure if we ever finished that tour….. But it was picked up again the next day by Bram who led us to a small record shop with big selections of regional music, the owner of whom would gamely play demos of anything we wanted to hear, and then make us up CDs to take away. One of his popular products is his own 'best of mbalax' which several of us excitedly took away after a foot-tapping listen in-store.
Back in Dakar the Institut Francais provided both a regular oasis for relaxation with its stylish restaurant for cocktails, coffee and meals, as well as concerts in its small but impressive outdoor amphitheatre-style concert venue. The annual AfricaFete was on whilst we were there, and we caught a double-bill concert of Souleymane Faye followed by a rather 'Grace Jones-like' Dobet Gnahore whose acrobatic choreography was so amazing that even she had to ditch her Dakar-style 6 inch heels for flat pumps after her first number! Souleymane Faye was evidently very popular with those whose French is good enough to be able to understand his humorous commentary that intersperses his music - sadly I cannot include myself there! Earlier in the week we had seen on the same stage Kouyate et Neerman whose contemporary fusion style of balafon and electronic vibraphone with guitars were more appealing to some of us than others, but it was good to see that some of the band were staying at our hotel (handily just round the corner) which enabled us to easily & casually express our appreciation of their concert as we passed them in the bar.
Far less nonchalant was my delight in seeing Cheikh Lo up close and personal at the intimate Cap Ouest. Known more as a guitarist outside his home country here he was playing the drums in a corner of the room with a small accompanying band new to him, yet all was perfectly tight. The venue itself led straight onto a small beach where you could wander out to look up at stars untainted by light pollution, but the highlight was when Bram called Cheikh Lo over to introduce himself and us.
The tour literature forewarns of the late night club culture, and it is certainly true - we left many concerts at anything from 2am when it was just getting going to 4.30am when it was still continuing, but even if this is not your preference, there is music to be had whilst dining or - occasionally - in the street. We dined to the excellent jazzy Toll-bi at the Restaurant L'Endroit, heard the strains of the kora at the arty La Calebasse, witnessed a drum performance welcoming some supposed VIPs off the ferry at the Ile de Goree, and had the chance ourselves to partake in a djembe workshop near our hotel in Saint-Louis. As a djembe & dundun player for many years I jumped at this opportunity and had a great time revisiting some rhythms I'd played before, but with half a dozen young men from neighbouring Guinea.
I was immensely grateful to Bram, who knowing my love of African percussion, kindly arranged for me to visit Ibu 'Kalabash' a prominent calabash (upturned gourd) player who has worked with many fine international acts. Ibu's house is of the traditional village compound type with streets of sand leading down to the beach, and the lesson took place with in a swelteringly hot room where his calabashes were proudly displayed on the wall. With sweat pouring down my face and hands, I could not achieve the kind of sound that Ibu was making so easily - so I think realising I was quite beyond hope the session quickly became a photo-sharing chat as he discovered that I also personally knew (from various workshops & summer schools) some of the musicians in his photos! The generosity of the Senegalese includes inviting guests to dine and this was quite a highlight of the tour for me. Every house is designed to have a shady place to sit outdoors and it is customary to allow complete strangers right of way through this, and indeed people did pass through as we sat with our communal lunch bowl eating one of the most tasty meals of the holiday. I think I was made an 'honorary man' for this occasion as men, women & children do eat separately, yet I was privileged to eat with Ibu, his brother and Bram. Wearing a djembe necklace I had bought the day before I was also the afternoon's entertainment for the many children - who took delight in beating their chests in mock djembe playing, and screaming with laughter when I did the same back!
From chest-beating we turned to hear the vigorous tama and sabar beating - the heart of the high-octane beats of the mbalax rhythm. Our first live exposure was courtesy of Ousmane Seck playing at Just 4 U, a stylish cabaret nightclub where few people were dancing apart from a couple of us from our group and which ended all too early at a mere 2am!
Desparate for more, a fellow late-nighter and I took a taxi to see Pape Diouf at the large Yengoulene nightclub. This was hardcore mbalax in terms of both the beat and the concert time (start time 2.15am, finish time 4am but with club DJ from there on) Again, I was surprised to see most of the local populace swaying rather than dancing, and it was only me & my one fellow late-nighter who were in full groove up in the balcony, occasionally joined by a couple of local girls who I think were rather amused by us! Apparently the Senegalese consider themselves 'too cool to dance'! It made me feel like yelling out "You don't know what you've got!!!" But I guess appreciation takes different forms, and incredibly, for the final number I was beckoned to the stage by the musicians who had spotted my wild abandoned dancing, to be their 'guest dancer' for a couple of mad minutes!! Wow!? Wau!!