Life and music in Senegal

Travel Destinations — By on December 7, 2009 at 4:48 pm

West Africa is not a heavily touristed place. It’s also not the first region that comes to mind when one contemplates great musical destinations. And yet there is a thriving music scene in Senegal, and especially in the capital city of Dakar, that would appeal to any musically inclined traveler. The NY Times just ran a travel piece that delves into the musical culture of Senegal.

When the sun dips behind the Atlantic, this gritty concrete metropolis — exhilarating, inventive, emotive — flares into a living jukebox of sounds with few African rivals…It should be a welcome moment in the spotlight for Dakar, one of the globe’s most dynamic yet least touristed music centers. With its bevy of international stars — Mr. N’Dour, the acoustic bard Ismael Lo, the adventurous singer-songwriter Baaba Maal — and an ever-increasing crop of new talents, the Senegalese capital is ripe for discovery.

“Dakar is one of the most musically vibrant cities in Africa,” says Simon Broughton, editor in chief of the Britain-based Songlines magazine, which last year began operating tours of the city and this month features Youssou N’Dour on its cover. “There’s a large number of clubs,” Mr. Broughton says, “and lots of music as part of the fabric of everyday life.”

If you venture to this West African nation, you’ll also be rewarded with a glimpse into the grim but friendly nature of African life, as described here by writer Seth Sherwood.

By day, the Dakar of Awadi’s people — poor, struggling, decaying, determined — comes vividly into view as I step out of the Hotel Farid into the hot, garbage-strewn streets of the city center.

Set against the glittering Atlantic, the grid of wide, French-built boulevards and crumbling narrow streets assaults the sensory apparatus at every entry point: the feel of dust and mosquitoes on the skin; the taste of exhaust fumes in the mouth; the smells of sweat and sewage and grilling meats in the nostrils; the chainsaw buzz of cheap scooters and the booming Muslim call to prayer echoing in the ears.

Even the short walk to the teeming indoor-outdoor Sandaga Market — where I head for local music CDs — brings all of Dakar’s contradictions to life. Gleaming Mercedes-Benzes crawl behind disintegrating jalopies and men pushing wheelbarrows. Art galleries and clothing boutiques nudge against cheap luncheonettes and abandoned storefronts. Suited Senegalese businessmen and Westerners … brush past homeless families sleeping on the sidewalk.

There’s no danger — Dakar by day is largely safe — only the constant scent of desperation mingled with a periodic whiff of prosperity.

At the market, everybody wants a piece of the foreigner’s purse. Roaming hawkers flash me batteries, SIM cards, Scrabble games and cheap backpacks, using every imaginable entreaty. “Hey, Mister! Where you from?” “Ça va, Monsieur? Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez?” “Shake my hand! Shake my hand! Obama! Obama!”

Check out the entire story, which provides an interesting overview of a little visited destination.

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