Notes From Africa

By Jenny Cathcart

Notes From Africa, a musical journey around the continent in the company of Senegalese superstar, Youssou N’Dour

Biography | Music
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Publication date: August 2019

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Xalima by Seydina Insa Wade

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In Dakar, in the early 1980s, Youssou N’Dour, Senegal’s first modern pop star, pioneered an innovative percussion-based musical style called mbalax, creating popular songs for the legion of fans who followed him into the city’s nightclubs. Thanks to the patronage of powerful Senegalese socialites, many of them women, N’Dour overcame the prejudices associated with his hereditary praise-singing caste, the griots, to become an international superstar, a millionaire businessman and, in 2012, a presidential candidate. 

Youssou N’Dour’s Senegal is the starting point for a musical journey which takes in the whole of West Africa and the wider continent, connecting with legendary musicians who include Fela Kuti (Nigeria), Franco (Congo), Khaled (Algeria), Miriam Makeba (South Africa), Ali Farka Touré and Salif Keita (Mali), Angélique Kidjo (Benin), each with a distinctive voice, musical style and cultural background. Their stories reveal how the music which African slaves brought to the Americas influenced gospel, blues, jazz, and Cuban son, and how these styles were re-absorbed around the African continent to emerge in yet more fusions and musical hybrids - Hi-Life and Juju in Ghana, Afro Beat in Nigeria, Morna in Cape Verde, Congolese Soukous, Mbaqanga in the townships of South Africa or Rai in Algeria. 

Following the world-wide success of Paul Simon’s Graceland album (1984), his collaboration with South African artists, western record companies signed recording contracts with African musicians and marketed their music as ‘World Music’, a term coined in London in 1987. High profile artists from Peter Gabriel to Damon Albarn instigated fruitful collaborations with Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Toumani Diabate and others and ‘cross-over’ hit singles such as Mory Kante’s ‘Yeke Yeke’ or Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry’s ‘Seven Seconds’ brought African music to the attention of the world. Many of Africa’s pioneering musicians were involved in freedom struggles and movements for social change. In these pages they offer their views on illegal immigration, climate change, corruption, aids, ebola, women’s rights, polygamy or religious freedoms. In their turn they have inspired a new generation of self-reliant, innovative and confident artists whose work is reflecting the current mood of their continent.

Lavishly illustrated with personal and professional photographs, Notes From Africa provides telling musical portraits. The book will be of special interest to travellers, music fans and all those who love and care about Africa.


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  • Jenny Cathcart avatar

    Jenny Cathcart

    When Jenny Cathcart travelled to Senegal in 1984 as a member of the BBC film crew which produced the TV series, ‘The Africans’, she met with the young man who was to become one of Africa’s foremost musicians, Youssou N’Dour. It was a fateful meeting which led to her abiding interest in African music and culture. At the same time as the term World Music was coined in London to market a new wave of popular music from Africa and around the world, Jenny became a producer on the pioneering TV series ‘Rhythms of the World’. In 1995, she proposed an African Summer Season on BBC 2 and produced two of the programmes; the first ever African Prom from the Royal Albert Hall and the documentary film, ‘Africa’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Years’, a social and musical history of post independence Africa. Ten years later, in 2005, she was Series Producer and Director on a six-part TV series entitled ‘The African Rock ‘n’ Roll Years’.  During the three years that Jenny spent working at Youssou N’Dour’s Head Office in Dakar, she promoted and managed the artists Cheikh Lo, Orchestra Baobab and Pape & Cheikh. She has written numerous features and reviews for the music magazines ‘Songlines’ and ‘fRoots’ and for the website  She has previously published ‘Hey You’, the first biography of Youssou N’Dour (Fine Line Books) 1989 and ‘Good Morrow Be Here’, stories of village life in Northern Ireland (Weaver Books) 1997.

  • Some say that Dakar took its name from dakhar, the fruit of a species of tamarind tree that the Egyptians used to darken the faces of their mummies. In the city which I saw for the first time in 1984, I recognised Ryszard Kapuscinski’s description: “A beautiful coastal city, pastel coloured, picturesque, laid out on a promontory amid beaches and terraces, slightly resembling Naples, the residential areas of Marseilles, the posh suburbs of Barcelona.”[i] The sea was limpid, the air pure, the gardens lush with billowing bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers, golden yellow and ruby red. On the seafront at sunset, lone figures, silhouetted against the skyline, sat gazing at the ocean, seeking solace or space, soothed by the rhythm of the breaking waves. The warmth of the welcome combined with the elegance, grace and charm of the Senegalese people made a deep and lasting impression.

    In 1902, when Dakar was still only a settlement of four hundred buildings, it replaced St. Louis in the north as the capital of French West Africa. Following an outbreak of cholera in 1914, the French colons moved the indigenous population from the airy Plateau down to marshy flat lands around the bay of Soumbédioune. The new settlement called Médina, where Youssou N’Dour was born, was laid out in geometric grids creating streets with numbers and no names. Senegalese from various ethnic groups lived in wooden houses, which would later be replaced by concrete structures. Dakar became the capital and administrative centre of Senegal in 1958.

    In the years following Senegal’s independence in 1960, life was for living sénégalaisement. On Sunday afternoons, citizens packed picnic baskets and strolled through the streets of Point E and the residences of Fann on their way to the Corniche and the beaches of Ouakam, Yoff or Ngor. Gradually, as severe drought hit the Sahel region, the economic landscape changed and more and more people migrated from the countryside to the city. In 1986 the entire population of Senegal was three million; by 2006 the same number of people lived in Dakar alone and the population of the country as a whole had risen to twelve million.

    There are currently some fourteen million people in Senegal, sixty per cent of whom are aged twenty-five and under and the once placid, airy city has, in the space of thirty years become over-crowded and polluted. As the centre of Dakar known as the plateau has become more and more congested, developers have moved down the peninsula towards the Point des Almadies, the westernmost tip of Africa, and then further along the coast. In the name of progress, access to the seashore has been blocked by a modern dual carriageway, and luxury hotels and shopping malls interrupt the sea views. The once fashionable bungalows at SICAP Amitié, Baobab and Liberté are being razed to the ground and replaced by high-rise blocks of flats, offices and shops. Swish bars and nightclubs on and near the so-called ‘millionaire’s mile’ on the Route des Almadies attract night revellers, including international footballers and trendy young jet setters, while the outer suburbs of Dieupeul, Derklé, Pikine, Guediawaye, Parcelles Assainies are already over populated. At Dakar’s Place de l’Indépendance, close by the cool ice cream parlours and the Marquise patisserie, handicapped beggars take up their positions outside the main banks. The city has seen an increase in barefoot street children, little talibés, barely clothed or properly fed. I see them with their tin cans, waiting for customers at the petrol station in Ouakam. Sadly the money they earn goes straight to their marabout masters, the leaders of local religious sects.

    The topography of Médina has also changed over the years as the area has become increasingly cosmopolitan. The first immigrant families who moved to Senegal from French colonial territories like Syria and Lebanon. They had settled in provincial towns like Kaolack and Diourbel to trade in peanuts, a cash crop introduced by the French in the 1840s, and then they came to Dakar. Today wealthy Malian and Guinean families, who prefer to invest in Dakar rather than in their home countries, own high rise buildings financed by the money they make working in Europe or America.

    On Gorée, a small island just off the coast at Dakar, where Portuguese, Dutch and English slave traders set up trading posts, the original slave house is preserved as a sad memorial to the millions of Africans who passed through its ‘door of no return’ on their way to the Americas. It is a place of pilgrimage, especially for African American visitors, who feel at once the anguish of their ancestors described by Maya Angelou as “the legions sold by sisters, stolen by brothers, bought by strangers, enslaved by the greedy and betrayed by history.”[ii]

  • 12th October 2019 My Book Review in the world music magazine 'Songlines'

    Delighted to send you this 4 star review by Nigel Williamson in the November edition of the world music magazine 'Songlines' as well as some pictures from the launch of 'Notes From Africa' at the Fermanagh Live festival in Enniskillen

    10th September 2019 Book Launch at Fermanagh Live Festival

     Dear Supporters and friends,

    I shall be delighted to see you at the launch of 'Notes From Africa' on 5th October at 2pm in the Buttermarket, Enniskillen as part of the Fermanagh Live Arts festival. It will be an opportunity for me to personally thank all of you who so generously supported the publication of my book and I will gladly sign your copy if you bring it along. Please encourage your…

    5th August 2019 On the same bill at Van Morrison!

    I had the great pleasure, thanks to my host, the wonderfully creative and energetic and inspired Sarah McGuinness, to present 'Notes From Africa' at Halyfest in Greencastle, County Donegal on 3rd August. The mystery festival headliner turned out to be none other than the legendary Van Morrison!  He is in fact mentioned on page 30 of my book. As Youssou and I watched a video of Van's blistering performance…

    29th May 2019 Not long now

    Unbound have done a wonderful job in preparing my book for publication 

    This is the cool cover and there are 108 images inside 

    On track for the printers at the end of June so not long now until copies are available!

    10th May 2019 Sign up before 27th May

    Unbound are closing subscriptions for my book on 27th May so that all those who have already bought a copy will have their name printed at the back of the book. So don't miss this final opportunity to join that list and have your book delivered in AUGUST.

    Meantime here's a little treat - a track from Youssou N'Dour's new album 'History' released last month. 

    13th December 2018 Good News

    Good news! Thanks to your generosity and support 'Notes From Africa' is almost fully funded - just a few more pledges needed and then Unbound can prepare my book for publication. Happy Xmas!

    28th October 2018 In Conversation with Carlo Gebler

    At the recent Fermanagh Live Festival I had the opportunity to talk about 'Notes From Africa' with the eminent writer Carlo Gebler. The event, which took place in Enniskillen's Buttermarket, a warm and welcoming venue, was well attended and well received. You may like to listen to the attached recording by Niall Bogue. Photo credit Euan Gebler. 

    27th September 2018 Hope to see you there

    I am looking forward to discussing my book 'Notes From Africa' with eminent writer Carlo Gebler on Thursday 4th October at 7 p.m. as part of the Fermanagh Live festival. Carlo describes the book as "An amazing compendium, a musicologist's bible." For me it has been a vivid and exciting personal journey that began when I met Youssou N'Dour in Dakar back in 1984 and continued through memorable meetings…

    8th August 2018 New Pledge options for 'Notes From Africa'

    Unbound have added two new Pledge options to my book page. 

    A Pledge for £50 includes a Super Patron paperback, an online copy of 'Notes From Africa' and the CD 'Xalima', a precious record of the beguiling music of Seydina Insa Wade (1948 – 2012). Often referred to as the Father of Senegalese Folk Music, Seydina's texts and melodies influenced all of his country’s major artists not least Youssou…

    19th July 2018 A date for your diary

    On 4th October, during the Fermanagh Live Festival, I shall be chatting with the writer Carlo Gebler about my book, 'Notes From Africa'.  I find myself on the same bill as my favourite Irish artist Paul Brady whom I met when he attended Youssou N'Dour's 'Egypt' concert at Vicar Street, Dublin in 2007. I have been a fan of Paul's music since 1977 when he released his debut album, 'Welcome Here Kind…

    4th July 2018 Morocco On My Mind

    Malika Zarra is an artist I befriended during the marvellous FESMAN festival in Dakar in 2010. Moroccan born Malika has lived in Paris and New York where she was signed to the label Motema (along with Gregory Porter among others). Her music is inspired by the rhythms of her native land but her collaborations have taken her in new and exciting directions.

    I am looking forward to a visit here in…

    26th June 2018 Youssou N'Dour's UK concerts August 2018

    Good news for all Youssou N'Dour fans! With his band, the Super Etoile de Dakar he will play three dates in the UK this summer:  Indigo, O2, London on 25th August;   Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 30th August and The Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London on 31st August. 

    May I gently persuade you, dear reader, to subscribe for a copy of my new book, 'Notes From Africa'. In it you will discover how Youssou…

    4th June 2018 Meet Kezia Jones

    On Friday 1st June, BBC 4 opened its new three-part series, Africa : A Journey into Music with a visit to Nigeria. Tracing the evolution of that country's popular music, Ghanaian born presenter, Rita Ray, met key players including Kezia Jones whose rhythm based Blufunk style she defined as the bridge between Fela Kuti's revolutionary Afrobeat and the globally successful Afrobeats of today's superstars…

    15th May 2018 World Music in the Mainstream

    Born in 1973 in Mozambique, the land of her mother, Mariza came to Lisbon, the home of her Portuguese father when she was three years old. The family owned a restaurant in the suburb of Mouraria where, it is said, Fado was born. Mariza's contemporary Fado blends African rhythms and Portuguese melody and verse. Her deeply emotive voice is matched by the plangent tones of the steel-string Spanish guitar…

    9th May 2018 Remembering Habib Faye

    Habib Faye (1965–2018) ace bass guitarist, keyboard player, arranger and composer, collaborated with Youssou N'Dour on many albums. In the late 1980s, the pair shared a house in Dakar's residential district, Cité Biagui, and together they created a company called Youbib. Habib marked Youssou N’Dour’s repertoire with notable contributions on numerous tracks including Bekoor, Sabar, Set, Lii. When,…

    23rd April 2018 Appreciation for 'Notes From Africa'

    Wally Badarou, sound painter, synthesizer specialist,  collaborator with Fela Kuti, Level 42, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger and many other leading musicians, describes my book as,

    “A well documented personal journey, an excellent read, which will serve as a reference for many.” 

    18th April 2018 Jazz Mbalax

    How about this for a talented young man! Read about Herve Samb and many like him in 'Notes From Africa'.  A fully illustrated online copy will cost you just £10 or 14 dollars/11 euros. Pledge early and often!

    10th April 2018 Spreading the World

    This ad for my book appears in the current edition of the World Music magazine 'Songlines'. We are making very good progress in funding its publication but we still need support to get it over the line. As well as being a personal memoir, 'Notes From Africa' is the fruit of detailed research with unique access to the continent's top musicians and should be of interest not only to musicologists and…

    4th April 2018 Songs for Freedom

    In March 1987, the London Palladium was the venue for the 3rd Secret Policeman’s Ball, an event organised by Amnesty International to raise awareness of human rights issues. The star-studded line-up of comedians and musicians was filmed for television and recorded for release by Virgin records. Jackson Browne and Paul Brady (one of my favourite Irish musicians) performed Browne’s ‘El Salvador’ while…

    27th March 2018 A Note About Cheikh Lo

    Born in Burkina Faso of Senegalese parents, Cheikh Lo is one of the many talented artists profiled in 'Notes From Africa'. I was Cheikh's manager during the period when his album 'Ne La Thiass' was licensed by World Circuit records in London. Journalist Rose Skelton described it then as, "Pure acoustic bliss with the rawness of reggae and the slinkiness of jazz mixed up with Cheikh Lo's cool voice…

    9th March 2018 A mesmerising concert by Youssou N'Dour

    When Youssou N'Dour and his band, the Super Etoile de Dakar, made their first London appearance at the Venue in Victoria in 1984, Peter Gabriel was in the audience. He was immediately smitten by the 'liquid velvet' voice, the percussive mbalax beat, the alluring sounds of the Sahel right there in the heart of the city. Peter travelled to Dakar to meet Youssou and thus began a collaboration that…

    1st March 2018 Salif Keita

    In the spring of 1988, I travelled to Paris with TV journalist Robin Denselow and director James Marsh (Man on Wire, The Theory of Everything and Mercy) to make a short film about the growing popularity of African music in the capital.  One of the musicians we met was Salif Keita whose album 'Soro' had just been released and which Robin Denselow described as, "a mix of synthesizers, subtle rhythms…

    26th February 2018 African Women

    In 'Notes From Africa' you will meet some impressive African women. You will read about Tartit, an all-female group from Mali, who occasionally perform for the comfort and encouragement of recent divorcees. Three times Grammy award winner Angelique Kidjo tells how she met the challenge of performing in a man's world by emulating Miriam Makeba.  Tunisian born Amina Annabi, who represented France and…

    22nd February 2018 A new World Jazz Fusion

    One of my favourite musicians is the bass player, singer and composer Richard Bona who is invigorating the international jazz scene with percussive rhythms and vibrant tonal colours. Born in 1967 in the remote village of Minta in Cameroon, Bona's journey from there to Paris and New York where he now owns the jazz club Bonafide and from where he tours the world, is remarkable. He tells us,“As a kid…

    20th February 2018 Baaba Maal's contribution to soundtrack of Black Panther

    It was thrilling to hear the distinctive voice of Baaba Maal echoing over the Wakanda hilltops in the much publicised blockbuster movie, ‘Black Panther’.  It seems that Swedish composer Ludwig Goransson spent one month in Senegal familiarising himself with African music and making recordings for the film soundtrack.  His principal contributor was Baaba Maal whose soaring vocals remind me very much…

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