Notes From Africa

By Jenny Cathcart

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



Chapter 1

Dakar, Senegal

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]

When, in January 1974, Michael Jackson travelled to Senegal to perform with the Jackson Five, he visited Gorée. The plight of those slaves, some of whom could have been his ancestors, and an appreciation of their background and bravery, made a definite impact on the young star who later wrote, “It was a visit to Senegal that made us realise how fortunate we were and how our African heritage had helped to make us what we were. We visited an old abandoned slave camp at Gore (sic) Island. We were so moved. The African people had given us gifts of courage and endurance that we couldn’t hope to repay.”[iii] The latest high profile visitor has been the President of the United States, Barack Obama and his family who, in June 2013 were photographed contemplating the ocean at the symbolic spot where slaves took their last look at Africa.

The island retains vestiges of its colonial architecture but many of the buildings have fallen into disuse. Some finely restored houses with sea views are owned by wealthy families such as the Schlumbergers, bankers and film producers, from France. Behind burnt ocre walls draped with hibiscus fronds and bougainvillea are secret gardens balmy with jasmine which open their doors to the public once a year during the art festival Regards sur Cours. Gorée became home to the sculptor, Moustapha Dimé and the painter Souleymane Keita, both of whom have sadly passed away. Mody Kane, whose mother made the island’s first commercial dolls, signs his contemporary glass paintings, ‘Le Nègre de Gorée’. The Cap Verdean seamstress works upstairs in her garret while women gather to gossip in Bigué’s curiosity shop and others pass their days working coloured skeins of thread on pure white cotton to produce the embroidery designs that are typical of the island.

A museum dedicated to Senegalese women is approached through a quiet alleyway. The island’s small Catholic church was the location for the marriage of film director John Stapleton (Boys in the Hood)[iv] to actress Akosua Busia (The Color Purple)[v] daughter of former Ghanaian president, Kofi Busia. The Chevalier de Boufflers hotel and restaurant, distinguished by its terracotta red exterior, overlooks the harbour where small boys duck and dive to retrieve coins thrown into the water by visitors arriving on the ferry from Dakar. The overall atmosphere is one of peace and tranquillity for there are no cars or bicycles on Gorée. At night, after the last ferry has returned to Dakar, the swish of the ocean waves is broken only by the sound of residents chatting on their verandas in the cool of the evening.


A Star is Born

As he emerged on the local music scene, Youssou N’Dour, Senegal’s first pop idol was often compared to America’s superstar Michael Jackson. Indeed that is how he was described to me when I arrived in Dakar in October 1984. The shy, serious, talented and charismatic young man I met then was, whether he was aware of it or not, on a mission to drag his own Wolof culture out of the shadow of colonialism and to prove that, with hard work, faith, courage and ambition it is possible to succeed and give hope to others.

When Senegal became independent its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, poet and French Academician, insisted upon high levels of education and placed special emphasis on arts subjects and music. His theory of enracinement et ouverture (authenticity and openness), formulated from his own experience as a writer and poet, called for a sound knowledge of Senegalese traditions together with an appreciation of western cultural values.

As an art form, Youssou N’Dour’s percussion based mbalax music erfectly fulfills the Senghorean principle for it is influenced by traditional songs and dances whilst integrating western instruments and song structures. Youssou instinctively felt the pulse of the Senegalese people. He knew they wanted to hear pop songs sung in their own language and that they would follow the sabar drums into the city nightclubs to dazzle the neon lights with their arm flailing, high kicking, spine-tingling dance routines.

Youssou sang in Wolof; he sang for the people, for wealthy patrons, for market traders and the boys from the Médina. He dared to create a popular music that tells old tales and modern truths, a music that makes the saddest people dance to the drums of their ancestors. The invigorating rhythms of the past are fused with the instruments and techniques of today’s global music and together they provide the perfect soundtrack for a landscape of searing heat, Sahelian dust, and the vibrant colours and sounds of West Africa’s most sophisticated city.











[i] The Shadow of the Sun – My African Life, Ryszard Kapusinski, (Penguin, 2001), p. 271

[ii] All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, Dr. Maya Angelou, (Virago, 1986), p. 109

[iii] Michael Jackson, Moonwalk, (William Heinemann, 2009), p. 108

[iv] Boys in the Hood, (Dir. John Stapleton, Columbia Pictures, 1991)

[v] The Color Purple, (Dir. Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, 1985)

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