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

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.

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 www.culturenorthernireland.org  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]

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Hope to see you there

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Youssou in kocc barma costume %28miyoko akiyama%29 p66

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…

New Pledge options for 'Notes From Africa'

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Seydina insa wade

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…

A date for your diary

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Flive postcard jpg

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…

Morocco On My Mind

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

138 malika zarra

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…

Youssou N'Dour's UK concerts August 2018

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Youssou stadium cropped

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…

Meet Kezia Jones

Monday, 4 June 2018

Kezia jones 2

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…

World Music in the Mainstream

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Mariza %28emil djumailiey dreamstime.com%29 p188

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…

Remembering Habib Faye

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

T%c3%a9l%c3%a9chargement

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,…

Appreciation for 'Notes From Africa'

Monday, 23 April 2018

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.” 

Jazz Mbalax

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Herve samb album cover

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!

Spreading the World

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Notes from africa

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…

Songs for Freedom

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

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…

A Note About Cheikh Lo

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

104 mor gueye 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…

A mesmerising concert by Youssou N'Dour

Friday, 9 March 2018

Youssou stadium cropped

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…

Salif Keita

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Salif keita at bandiagara p121

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…

African Women

Monday, 26 February 2018

Amina annabi

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…

A new World Jazz Fusion

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Monument de la renaissance p7

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…

Baaba Maal's contribution to soundtrack of Black Panther

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Baaba maal at realworld studios

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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