Archive for the ‘Senegal’ Category
The welcome news from California on marriage equality has generated lots of reactions, so I thought I’d note something quite in the other direction: this headline, via Brett at Harry’s Place — “President plans to kill off every single homosexual.” That’d be President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, the tiny sliver of a country that bisects Senegal. In preparing for my Senegal trip in February (see here, here, here, here), I read a fair amount about Gambia, and I knew its democratic record was pretty well tarnished. Didn’t know how much.
Senegal is one of those places that, according to the preconceptions of many, shouldn’t exist — a 95%-majority Muslim population that maintains excellent relations with the U.S. In Senegal one finds proof that Islam and democracy can be compatible, and disproof that there is a unified “Muslim world” with a common chorus of grievances against the West. In part, this is what Youssou N’Dour intended to convey with his 2003 album Egypt, a celebration of Senegal’s unique Sufi traditions, which are centered around spiritual icons known as marabouts. “[I]n recent times [Islam] has come to be both misunderstood and misinterpreted by many commentators and adherents alike,” reads the liner notes. As my colleague Larry Blumenfeld has written, N’Dour decries Western anti-Muslim stereotypes but also undermines the totalizing claims of Islamic hardliners.
And what is “the West” anyway? On a world map it’s easy to see that Dakar lies well to the west of the entire European landmass.
Other points of interest:
Here is a story about Senegalese veterans who fought for the French in World War II.
A piece on the death of Leopold Senghor, the George Washington of Senegal and a very influential post-colonial thinker.
A conversation between Bill Weinberg and leaders of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM), in which the fate of Mauritanian refugees in northern Senegal is discussed.
A report on recent arrests stemming from publication of photos of a gay marriage ceremony in Senegal. When it comes to gay rights, Senegalese democracy doesn’t apply.
In reporting from the recent conflict in Chad, it’s been mentioned that Hissène Habré, former Chadian president and a major human rights violator, is living in exile in Senegal. Apparently the Senegalese intend to try him but they’re dragging their feet.
Two Midwestern types, ordinary American Joes, were waiting for the airport minibus outside our hotel in Dakar. I struck up a chat with one of them, who said they’d just arrived the previous night and were already leaving. Why? I asked. “We’re U.S. Immigration, we deported someone.” That someone was a convicted rapist.
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.
This was the view from my hotel window on the dreary jet-lagged morning after arrival in Dakar (click to enlarge). My impressions of the city quickly grew more positive, although the grinding poverty to be found in this, a cosmopolitan hub in one of Africa’s most stable democracies, gives one a stark sense of the privation suffered in others parts of the continent. I joined two American colleagues for the predawn minibus ride from Senghor airport, through landscapes that looked nothing like the heavily trafficked urban corridors of the U.S. and Europe. The roads were extremely rough — it’s no wonder the taxi fleet is literally falling apart. Later in the trip, when one of our drivers tried to shut his door, it fell off the car.
Just outside the driveway of the hotel, site of the Youssou N’Dour press event I was attending, rows of young Senegalese men stationed themselves, waiting to latch onto every rich foreigner in sight, offering phone cards, guided tours, souvenirs of all descriptions. A bit further on and the streets grew more cramped, with market stalls on either side, gas fumes thick in the air. The merchants didn’t just make their pitches as you passed — they followed you down the street, desperate to make any sort of sale. More than once, polite but firm refusals were met with the question, “Why don’t you like Senegalese people?” One manic young tout who followed us for about three blocks kept shouting, “Senegal no problem. Senegal peace and love!” Pointing to the various options around us, he barked, “This side Lebanese, this side Senegalese. You buy Senegalese.” There is a significant Lebanese merchant community based in Dakar.
No American ghetto comes close to the feel and flavor of African poverty, although America’s inner cities, blighted by guns and drugs, are probably more dangerous (actual war zones excepted, of course). As chaotic as Dakar’s central market may feel to a visitor, it is reasonably safe.
Senegal may be considered an African “success story” — something President Bush is eagerly highlighting at the moment in Tanzania, as his calamitous two terms draw to an end. (How poetic if we should elect a president of direct African descent.) And yet Senegal certainly needs a huge amount of economic uplift. Youssou N’Dour’s micro-credit initiative, Birima, seems to transcend the foreign-aid paradigm of the past by putting money, know-how and initiative directly into the hands of the people. I hope to say more about that, and other micro-credit initiatives, in the near future. (For a peek at the downside of conventional humanitarian aid, see David Rieff’s devastating analysis of Live Aid and the Ethiopian famine.)
There’s also much to be said about music, religion and politics in Senegal, so I’ll be posting about those matters as well. I’ll link to my photo album on Shutterfly too, once it’s up.
I’m just back from Senegal, after a long and nearly sleepless haul on trains, planes, automobiles back to Philadelphia. The plane may have landed, but my brain has not. I’ll post details of the trip in the coming days after I’ve sorted them out. Meanwhile, I thought I’d post this hasty pic of a North Korean tanker in the port at Dakar, taken from the Gorée Island ferry. Click to enlarge.
[Update: I’ve just learned that this ship is on a Greenpeace watchlist.]