Wednesday, Feb. 13 was a starry and perfect night on Île de Gorée, just off the coast of Dakar, where my colleagues and I saw Youssou N’Dour (top photo) perform in a temporary structure that sat about 200 people max. N’Dour is a magnetic performer, as audiences well beyond Senegal have known for a while (the classic live clip of “In Your Eyes” with Peter Gabriel is here). His albums always contain a good two or three instances of outright melodic genius — “Li Ma Weesu” from Nothing’s In Vain (2002) is a pop masterpiece, and something I was hoping to hear that night. The show was brief, but given the intimate setting, I can speak for just about everyone there and say it was one of the most electric live experiences imaginable.
Later the same night, I broke away with two new friends to a nightclub called (if memory serves) tebbou di, to hear another well-known Senegalese singer named Thione Seck. That’s me with Thione, bottom photo. This was an altogether different scene, but no less interesting. The club seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but the exterior had a certain glitz. The inside was small and dimly lit, very well-kept. It was nearing 1am and the place was practically empty. In a few minutes a band began to play very poor renditions of “Cissy Strut” by the Meters and “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix. I was waiting for a second wind and this wasn’t helping.
Soon enough we heard a singer — not Thione Seck but his son, or so I was told. The band suddenly snapped into shape, playing the taut, repetitive rhythms of mbalax, as the local music is known. There were two keyboardists, two electric guitarists (perhaps even three), bass and drums, as well as a tamakat, playing the small but very audible tama drum (you can see it in the N’Dour photo above). Gradually the club began to fill with an impeccably dressed middle-class crowd, out for a very late Wednesday night. The men looked sharp but casual, and seemed eager to draw attention to their snazzy belt buckles. Some of the women, wearing jeans and low-cut tops, would have fit right in at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem. They were Muslims, in all likelihood. I couldn’t help but think of the fully covered African-American women I often see in Philadelphia.
Interesting to note that the dancefloor was flooded with light, but the band played in darkness. Even when Thione Seck took the stage, he simply became part of the anonymous backdrop. This mbalax is a functional music, intended for dancing. The band is not on display; the dancers are. When the songs ended, my friends and I thought it appropriate to clap. Wrong. To clap, apparently, is to behave like an idiot. No, the endings were greeted with silence, and as soon as the next song started, the dancing resumed, as spirited as before.
By now, almost 2:30am, the place was packed. Seck’s high, mellifluous, somehow mournful voice filled the room as the rhythms churned, and the dancers got deeper into their work. We, the only white people for miles, started dancing too, and no one paid us the slightest bit of mind. The mood was fairly laid back, with the crowd rocking and swaying as one. But now and then a single dancer would launch into an eye-popping display, a frenzy of limbs, almost reminiscent of crumping or other showy hip-hop styles, but quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. (This music video of Thione’s gives you some idea, but it’s not the same.)
My uninformed take on mbalax: it’s harmonically simple music, based on cyclical patterns, non-improvisational. The elastic element seemed to be that little tama drum. Then there were the odd rhythmic punches that the band would suddenly strike together in unison, based on what cueing system I have no idea. Even more amazing, some of the male dancers would nail these same rhythmic hits with their feet. As they stomped emphatically with their fine leather shoes, one was reminded of the jazz tap tradition.
The differences between Seck and Youssou N’Dour were striking. N’Dour’s music is much more pop-inflected, unquestionably rooted in mbalax but addressed to the wider world. Seck, who we were told plays for this kind of dance crowd practically every night, seems much more a man of the local soil.
No smoking ban in Dakar, of course, so after a certain point the air became intolerable. It was time to get a cab, wind back through deserted Dakar streets and turn in.