Mbalax of Senegal

Musicians in Senegal are very proud of their origins and on Senegal Music Day which is the 21st of June all the major artists return home so that they can perform to their music loving public. Senegal has up to a 90% local music played on their radio stations and this is through choice.
Music is the essence of creativity. In the African tradition, musicianship and healing are often synonymous. The griot is blessed with the community obligations of holding the microphone at welcoming gatherings or in passing information, oral history and singing the mbalax music to summons the spiritual world in the traditional ceremonies like of healing or maturing.
In the more modern society that Dakar embodies, the importance of being a griot has been usurped by the importance of being a musician. All the musicians maintain that essential function in society of passing messages, restoring pride and giving hope. When this music is expressed it finds itself in harmonic resonance with the all, an energetic whole humming in vibrations of light, life and love. The word ‘heal’ comes from the word ‘whole.’
I was told the aids infection rate never grew higher than 7% in Senegal . The reason for this is they have a tradition of 'griot'. Griot is the 'music man' who is entrusted with spreading messages of information and education to the people of the community. Thus when word of an aids epidemic broke, there was no hesitation to commission a force of the most well known musicians to share an important message with the people. And so the musicians took to the streets with loud-halers singing songs describing the programme of aids and HIV infection. The people understood the programme and made an immediate choice to live without it. HIV and aids is a choice.

There goes an old Wolof saying, roughly translated as follows. 'You can not sit on someone else's under because you will find it is already taken. You must sit on your own under.' (An under is an urn for herb and insense burning)

Senegal's African Hip Hop movement

June 21 is music day in Senegal and a day when the musicians in the country get the opportunity to play. Four stages and over 100 acts performed across the city of Dakar from dusk till dawn. A few traditional and mbalax acts did their thing, but it was mainly rap, the honest, expressive and intense Senegalese brand.
Dizzy Gillespie used to say, 'If you talk to me about rap, you are talking about guys like Martin Luther King, Stokey Carmichael, Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali.' Perhaps it is those civil rights routes of poetic free talking and vivid expression that the hip-hop language is born out of. Dizzy Gillespie did also say 'These guys can teach me something about poetry, but nothing about music.'
Hip-hop is about the lyrics, the messages and the language. It's a revolutionary way of thinking. In the case of Senegal, like with anything in the African Diaspora, the hip-hop has been tropicalised. The distinctive Senegalese culture, style and beliefs have been added to allow them to speak authentically and in their own tongue.
This is Senegalese hip-hop. It's got a touch of the Western flash, but it's mainly African in sound, style and in integrity. They are rapping in Wolof and they are rapping about serious issues. For example the show that night, an artist was singing that the girls mustn't show their bodies, it's not the Muslim way. Tight clothes are for prostitutes, they must wear the traditional clothes!
The hip-hop is everything that is Senegal and everything that is Senegalese youth: by them, about them and for them. There are 3000 hip-hop groups in Senegal and they're all paying respect to tradition.
DJ Awadi of best known Senegalese rap outfit Positive Black Soul says: "The rappers are talking about the streets and everything we live in the society. It's kind of a revolutionary way of thinking. We have a lot to say, we are facing many different things we can express only by the rap. It is all about saying what you haven't heard, what you are facing in your daily life. The struggle. We want to eat, we want to be independent, we don't want mental slavery.
"The kids hope that by rapping they can get out of the crisis because the crisis is very strong. If you have no job, nothing to do, maybe rap is the way to escape this hard reality.
"We put our culture in front of everything. We start with the language - rapping in Wolof. We talk about Senegalese and African realities, and after that we sample African musicians and play with traditional instruments like the kora, the follani flute, the ballophone, the djembe, the saba and the talking drum.”
Khuman of group Pfrois says: "The rappers are talking about the streets, everything we live in the society. This is the reality so we have to find a way to get out of it. If no-one wants to help us we are going to take it by force because it is our thing."

On tour with Baaba Maal

Ousman Mbaye, press concierge to Baaba Maal arrives at the hotel to say Baaba Maal is going on tour and there is space for me to travel with them. He took me to the home of Mbasor, the manager of Baaba Maal where we drank some traditional tea and waited for the time to leave to travel to the home compound of Baaba Maal and then depart.
We were about to take a grand journey on the dusty roads that lie between Senegal's new and old capitals, Dakar and Saint Louis. Baaba Maal was performing two free concerts in poverty stricken areas to raise awareness for a polio victim. From semi-arid to just about completely arid, across a massive green oasis, along tight and dusty roads and past a few desperately obvious villages, Baaba's flash four by four races ahead with a unique energy. Outside, the soccer field is a sandpit, the hairdressing salon a telephone booth, the people poor and the landscape dry. A man stumbles across the road dragging an old goat behind him. He's dirty, worn and haggard, but proudly dressed in a stunning emerald green robe.
Inside, we've got the radio playing. It is mbalax music, a repetitive, chaotic West African rhythm. The band members clap along and there is a round man with thick glasses and a white robe, causing infinite hilarity. He is the comedian. Regarding the tour we were embarking on, Baaba sais: "This tour is the first fight this band is doing. People need the knowledge, to understand how to take care against disease. And you have to talk it in a language that they can understand, that is near to them. Culture is very near to them, it is their tradition. They know the music, they don't take it like music for the business, they take it like a social music. They understand everything in the songs.”
The red warmth of the desert sands slowly faded across the endless landscape into a dramatic sunset and our first stop and transit, the tiny village of Mboro, and the school office. Baaba takes the bed, the comedian takes the stage and we all share a meal. Without the language it is very difficult to tell exactly what was going on but the comedian would dive into long and deadpan dialogues in Wolof (the local language) punctuated with outbursts of laughter.
Baaba would call me over to show off the South African dance in an imaginary boogie, my friend Ousmane would point, clap and laugh shouting 'Crazy man, he's a crazy man!' The young dancer for the group placed his mat on the floor to pray. That would be his last moment of silence and rest before midnight's departure for the tract of desert in a tiny village, chosen as the venue for the night's concert.
When Baaba Maal's car arrived at the venue, the rhythmical calls (all in the guttural language of Wolof) of 'Baaba' 'We love you', 'Baaba', 'We're with you forever' rung out filling the dusty desert roads and the large dusty football pitch where the concert was held. This song rung out until the concert finally got underway after 3am.
The village was thrust into darkness, with all the electricity run from the main power line for the sound. The speakers stood on classroom desks, the stage was built using a collection of high jump mats and hundred gallon drums and the early desert morning became very cool. But the tiny village was there, the old, the young, the conservative and the out-going, enjoying the authentic, diverse and interesting Senegalese grooves.
On stage I witnessed two tall lithe lads with long dreads and perfect features rapping in the guttural Wolof language, grooving to these big backing beats, their arms rhythmically flowing like a boxer in a training bout, and their full-length traditional robes looking graceful in the cool desert night.
On the corner of the stage next to the baobab tree, silhouetted by the single stage lamp, there was a musician, seated wearing those big loose pants and baseball cap, playing the kora with all the subtlety of his great grandfather three generations before.
Baaba Maal says: "This is where I take my sound from. I mix it with my traditional background and my experiences of life. It all starts from the African elements. I like to play in the villages to see how they are going to dance, to react, to see what kind of clothes they are going to put on, because this is where I take my inspiration."
Dressed in a purple New York afro-chic suit and elegantly strutting his leather boots through the desert dust, Baaba's demure and refined figure cut a striking contrast amongst the cacophony of fans, jumping, shouting and dancing in the dirt. No flowing African robes that famously brought colour to the Royal Albert, no overted dance steps, big smiles and showmanship, in these villages of Senegal, the music is not about Baaba and his international reputation, it is about the rural Senegal audience and their moral and social needs.
We returned to the school office shortly before sunrise where Baaba enjoyed a couple of cigarettes before setting off on a six hour drive for Saint Louis, the next venue. For the rest of us we chose to rest before the long and difficult drive. Three mattresses lay together on the floor outside the school in the open and cool night sky. No pillows, no blankets, but instead the comedian to hold the floor until our departure. For an hour he talked, for an hour everybody laughed, and with that we were back on the road. At around mid-morning we arrived at our destination, a flush French run hotel just outside the city of Saint Louis. There Baaba stood. Gentle and dignified, dressed in a white Versace tracksuit, leaning over the steaming bonnet of the landcruiser, still in good humour.
The concert that night was performed on the basket-ball courts at the university of Saint Louis. The lighting was no more than a few aptly placed street-lamps, the sound was dismal, but the large student crowd was appreciative, energetic and inspired by Baaba Maal.
After the show and with the sun making a dramatic appearance we stopped off at a roadside shack. No signs, no advertorials, only open steel windows, but the manager, Mbasor, dressed in dramatic flowing purple robes and the pointed shoes to match knocked heavily at the door. A rather startled lady invited us in. Words, money and finally a glorious platter of meat were exchanged and we returned to the pool of the hotel for a tasty dinner and an array of gin and tonics.
On our final evening we all enjoyed the spectacle of giant tortoises copulating. Baaba then took a stroll. He slowly and contemplatedly paced the hotel gardens, occasionally raising his arms to his shoulders and the sky in aerobic fashion and occasionally bending to scrutinise and observe the intricacies and beauties of the flowers that paved the path. His movements were entirely meditative and natural.
Baaba Maal said: "I talk to a lot of musicians and intellectual people in Africa and they see my way as a kind of reference: to be part of the world in general but also deeply African. People got to know how to talk about, how to define Africa. I want people to see Africa in new eyes, to know that it is not dead, it is always alive and people can give confidence to Africa. We have a lot of strong people who really want to do something, who really want to participate in the universal development, but deeply to help Africa to give the place that Africa needs to have."
"I want to be more international and well known. But at the same time I don't want to turn my back to Africa and my roots. I want to make it the same line between here and the rest of the world. Not to work in the international market and then come back here and work in this market. The whole world has to share and when you're talking about sharing you have to forgive. Everything should be connected to one whole project that is more universal."

Meeting Ismael Lo

Ismael Lo said: “The country of Senegal is very difficult. We are a poor country. In Africa we have many problems. I don't have to try and do comparisons between African and Europe. It is not the same. In Europe people are very rich. In Africa we are not very rich. We are poor but we are very rich inside.
“People are good, their mind is good, we have lots of cultural riches. People are always smiling here getting happy. That is our riches. If my name goes around the world, I started here in Africa. I am richer in my country for everything. I have more inspiration. I have a good life.
“Jammu Africa is a song for peace in Africa and the world. colonialisation divided us and that is why we have ethnic violence. This song is for peace, this song is to stop war, and for peace and love. That is what I want to see before the last day of life. Africa Unite. “Every album, every song I write for Africa, for peace, for love, for children, for women, for Africa. A good future for the unity of Africa. I am an artist, I sing. We have more men singers than women. It is a tradition. We have griot family. It is the same in Mali and Guinea.
“Muslim is Muslim everywhere. We are not living on the same side. Every side has its practice. We have five prayers every day. Before making your prayer you must wash your hands and be spiritual. In Senegal after you pray you go to do your business. The most important thing is to do your prayer on hours. Finished.
“When I started singing my mother did not want me singing. For her, singing is for griot communities. I feel singing, I have to sing. There are many singers in Senegal, like Baaba Maal, who are not griot. I have good relations with all griots n Senegal. I sing my way. I didn't have to sing like griots, griots can sing for someone about big things, it is not my tradition.
I don't have to sing about those things. Griot community is a tradition of family to family. I am a modern singer. I am not a griot. I don't feel a big difference between me and griot. The first music I heard is traditional Senegalese music. It is my culture. The second music on my life is soul music. I feel more the traditional music to help me. Our music is very open around the world. I start in Orifisk, not very far from Dakar. I was six or seven years. I made my own guitar with an old bottle. After that I have to imitate Senegalese music. I am playing real guitar from 1989. I was listening to radio all day. We had all celebrations of my culture.
“I don't like this name star, superstar, but I know I am very popular, but I am a singer. I was very popular very quickly, but I don't have a school. The style I play, playing acoustic guitar, singing and playing harmonica was new for Senegalese community. Everyone came to see me and listen to me. In my mind I never wanted to be popular or an artist I do that just for pleasure. I have my brother bring me on a TV show. I play one time, two time and people like my music. It is coming very naturally. I am a musician, but I feel many other things then singing. I am painting before music. I like building, I like to do something with flowers and trees. I feel I don't have time to do the things in my life. I am always touring.
“Sometime I am surprised. Sometimes it is difficult. Perhaps I go to the market to buy fish and all the people want to touch me, to talk to me, to give me hand. I am an artist. I have to live my life. I don't want to be like the president. You stay only home and anything you want people go outside and get it for you. You don't have a life. I try to live very naturally. Sometimes people don't want me to do something, like going to the market, the beach or building somewhere. I feel to live. I feel to go now to the cinema, I go to the cinema. I feel to play football now, I play football now. I am very simple.
“On the future I have to stop touring and help the now generation with music. Now I am very experienced with music. I do many good and bad things. And all the good things I did I have to give to the new generation coming up. I write songs for other singers. I want to have more time for painting. Sometimes I bring my clothes to paint with me when I have one month tour. I have to help my children, and now my first daughter is 18 or 21. I have to help my family and other musicians.”

Meeting Cheikh Lo

It was a typically dusty, dirty and hot day in Dakar and I had taken a cab out into the suburbs where Cheikh Lo lived. As usual, our directions were poor and we relied again on street knowledge for our arrival. After much pointing, animated explaining and sandy U-turns we arrived at his home. A picture of his tiny son poised behind a massive drum kit hung on the faded back wall of the lounge, another of the prophet Cheikh Ibra Fall, of the Baye Fall, hung framed on the opposite wall. Cheikh was in and amongst all of this, frenetically co-ordinating tours, talking on the 'phone and shouting over the traditional Senegalese music blaring out of the sound system. It sat in the corner of the room in a small oak cabinet, like a shrine surrounded by a few freshly picked flowers and a fascinating collection of disks. His music is just like that, a little bit of everything, Latin, Cuban, African and mbalax, coming together in a sound that is fresh, funky, vibrant. Beating tama-tamas thrash out the chaotic mbalax rhythm, funky basslines, Zairean Rumba and Cuban grooves mixed together with reggae back-beat create an infinitely fashionable dance step, whilst his soaring voice is all conquering and soothing to frenzied emotions. His mix is a unique and beautiful world music mix, a true African voice. This is what Cheikh is about: telling the reality, honestly and fighting the good cause sincerely. As a result of this drive, he has made it to the top.
Cheikh Lo said: "Me, I want to play every music. I want to travel, I want to discover every type of music... All this rhythm is Africa. It is the change of the name. I can feel the rhythm. I feel the rhythm. I know the rhythm is Africa. Today the rhythm is universal. If you do that, you build one music, you create one music, because you can take here, take here, take here."
"Musicians must listen to other musicians to learn what to do and gain influences. Latin music influenced me as a little boy. Latin music is from Africa. My buzz musically is mbalax, but I listen to all music because I am curious, French music, American music, Cuban music, English music. Every music is Africa."
Walking down the crazy hustle of Dakar's streets, you are faced with the daily spirituality of the Allah devotees. They pray five times a day. During Friday lunch hours the streets are lined with people in beautiful flowing African robes, bent over in prayer. There is a small sect of people who hang outside a dingy yet tasty Lebanese take-away called Ado's. They dance about with long dreads and Rastafarian iconography, very happy, very relaxed and tolerant, begging for their money. They are the black Muslims, a small group in Senegal called the Baye Fall.
Cheikh says: "I'm a Baye Fall, the first disciple of Cheikh Amadou Bab. He is the founder of the big temple in Tuba. He put the dreadlocks. If the Rastas came one day to Africa they will know their grandfather is a Baye Fall, because you are the same, the looks in Senegal and Jamaica are the same."
It is not that easy standing out in a conservative country. Lo lost his job playing in the house band at a local hotel for his dreads, and more than a few questions were raised amongst the locals about his ways. Happily, Senegal is very tolerant, people may not agree with his ways, but his intentions are good and that is the main thing.
Cheikh says: "The conflict between all people is not 'Baye Fall'. Today if you see the Arabic it is war war war. Every day on the TV I see Arafat with the military, every year. How many years he do the war? He don't stop the war. Mohammed is spiritual. He tells everybody, Arabian love, love your brother. The Bible say not war, love. The Q'uran say not war, love. Everywhere in the world say the same: not war, peace and love. Yes!
"Everybody has this problem to live somewhere. I never want to go to live in Paris, England or anywhere. I want to live in Senegal because I know if you have peace, you have good in Senegal. The system is not closed, you are free.
"In Europe you can't bring some money for the poor town. One moment you are there, then it is two years, three years you can't come back. You are nothing. You drink alcohol, you have old women, what life do you have? Go home, go in your home man, there is a lot of jobs to do there, to build here in Africa."

With Youssou N'Dour

As it was Senegalese music day all the major artists where back in Dakar to enjoy this time before embarking on their international schedule again. I arranged to meet with Youssou n' Dour at 7pm on the last of his five 'rest' days in Dakar, before a whirlwind tour in Japan and the summer festivals in Europe. He told me to come at 7pm because by then he would have finished his business of recording a new album at his Jololi studios and mixing his sister Vivianne's new music video.
That morning in the local paper, I read an interview where the journalist visibly attacked Youssou, asking him whether he was a billionaire, questioning him on the mystery behind his wife (the mystery in that she is never seen), making suggestions about his relations with leading politicians and his involvement with the media. Youssou's answers were of course appropriately curt and illusive, which brought my attention to this fascinating conflict that exists around him in Senegal: a man so popular, so admired, a man who has contributed so extensively to culture in that country, yet criticised for his arrogance, disrespected for his selfishness and questioned about his success.
By 7pm his business was nowhere near done, by ten he was still in the studio, at midnight downtown for a meeting and by 3am still in the studio. I waited for him at Jololi studios, what used to be his private residence. It was an uncomfortably warm Senegalese morning infected by the continual buzz of mosquitoes and the incredible pace of the city life that went before it. With his brother and label manager Bouba by his side, he was a little irritable and visibly exhausted, but still taking calls, giving out instructions, 'doing business before bed', as they put it.
We talked briefly on the situation of African musicians selling out, wanting to go abroad. 'C'est grave, c'est grave (it is serious) he said. We talked of Vivianne's successes, C'est bien, c'est bien (it is good) he said. He remained as unreceptive and uncommunicative as his earlier interview had suggested, partly to do with the hour, partly to do with the circumstances.
His brother Bouba N'Dour manager of his record label Jololi spoke excellent English. He said: “Youssou started on the same level as everyone, where there wasn't much technically. From day one, people really got into what he was doing musically so he always had a big career in Senegal and a big following that made him really stay here. There is a great career here and it is a great place to live and get inspired the whole time. If an artist with that kind of name stays in a small place like here you have to ensure you have places to develop your career, studios you can work in and stuff like that. Youssou's career is here, it is a part of life in Senegal and around that we try and build new artists.
Youssou N'Dour said: "We have to work twice as hard as Europeans because we have not a lot to work from. We have to have the courage to really say things about politics about what people should be doing even the population has a great responsibility with education and how people should behave, how well people should work and how hard they should work."
"I choose to invest in the press because it is closely related to my profession. Everybody knows the media industry is not yet a money making industry. This is normal because it is one of the first enterprises in the Senegal media. It will be for tomorrow. I am a builder, like if computers become what they are today it is because Bill Gates believed in it. I vote for information on culture because this can get out the tyranny of the politics. Information about culture interests the public."

Visiting Coumba Gowlo

It was late on a warm Dakar afternoon and I was meeting Coumba at her nightclub The Jpessie Night just near the market place. Coumba is a great pop-star, with a desire to seriously participate in improving her country, her continent and the lives of all people. With her nightclub and her business initiative 'Dakar Rendez Vous Music' she is actively making the change in the world that she wants to see.
Coumba said: “A change of ideas and styles is a way to be together, everybody worldwide should know the music is universal. “We are all concerned about what is going through the earth. As an artist I consider myself an ambassador which means that in everything I do I mention what is going on in Africa. I am African and I see every day what is going on around me. It concerns me and it should concern everybody. The more people who are concerned and the more people who have knowledge about it, then it will be easier to find a solution and do something about it.
"We have a huge huge huge, a phenomenal…The youth here have great great talent, but they don't have the opportunity to do anything. I come from a modest family so if I relate it to my past what I had, what I wish I had. It helps me to face the reality and fight and that's why I am fighting today for the young people, they are simply our future. If they don't have education, if they don't have a chance to grow into a good condition and become somebody, the future in Africa will be no better than today. I give them the chance to perform in the night-club. We also have a label Sabar for us to help them to do something and be known worldwide. And why not? It is a matter of ambition. You cannot just sing and that is it. In Africa we need help, we need promotion in terms of music, so, it's a way for me to help our country and our continent go further.
“I was born into a griot family and an ambience of song. My father was a songwriter and my mother a singer, so I learnt the traditional culture and history. And that is very important. From the day you are born to the day you die you know where you are coming from and that everything you are going to do will be with your culture. As an artist you must mention origin for people worldwide to gain that knowledge to know where you are coming from and to understand who is who.
“The griot is still here, the tradition is still here but they are just growing like the world is growing. We are all griots, we are sending messages and we do whatever we can do to keep people positive about what is going on."
Coumba Gowlo recorded a version of Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata and it was a hit song in Senegal. She said, “I really love Miriam Makeba, she's a huge example for us African artists. I am fond of what she is doing and I think we should follow big stars and try to find a way to make a contribution for the world to know about Africa, and what women are capable of doing. And as a result I feel that I am close to South Africa.”

Struan Douglas

Struan Douglas is a writer and musician based in South Africa.