Senegal: Baobabs, Boubous, and Mbalax

John Cho

Nine years ago, when I was teaching at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, I decided to spend my Christmas vacation exploring another West African country. For no particular reason I chose Senegal, which was a couple of short flights north on the Ghana Airways coastal hopper. After having purchased the ticket and having obtained a visa at the Senegalese consulate (which was cleverly disguised as a small tailor shop located on an improbable back street in Freetown), I checked out my modest cache of U.S. dollars from the Peace Corps office. The only difficulty I experienced on the journey was getting to the airport, with the half-hour ride across the bay turning into a three-hour drive around because of a broken ferry boat.

Senegal was an eye-opener for someone just arriving from Sierra Leone. For one thing, I had assumed that other West African countries would have dismal public transportation as in Sierra Leone. I was pleasantly surprised. In Senegal one could travel in relative comfort in a seven-seat Peugeot 504, the top-tier intercity vehicle. The prices were fixed and the car could not be overloaded. No need to wonder what today's price would be or to squeeze into the nonexistent space between the driver and his door. The dry, flat savannah dotted with baobab trees was also a stark contrast to the near-rain forest and rugged terrain of the Freetown peninsula. The people, on the other hand, were generally taller, wore more traditional style clothing (the body-length embroidered gowns known as boubous), spoke French and Wolof, and were mostly Muslims. What caught me completely off guard, though, was the distinctly different flavor of the pop music. It immediately enchanted me then, and even now when someone asks me, ``Which country produces your favorite pop music?'' I answer, ``Senegal.''

There is an identifiable pan-African pop sound that resulted from the Congolese rumba boom of the 60s, which itself was seeded by the preceding worldwide craze in Cuban music. Congolese innovators such as the Grand Kalle and Franco perfected the cool and sweet aesthetics that underlie the trademark circular, arpeggio guitar riffs and major-third vocal harmonies. The style became dominant in much of sub-Saharan Africa, and remains extremely popular to this day, often overshadowing local developments in small countries like Sierra Leone that had lost their own recording industry and prominent musicians due to the deteriorating economy.

Cuban pop music also took root in Senegal, but the hybrid that sprouted on its hardscrabble Sahelian soil was a far cry from the mellow euphonies of the Congo. The melodramatic ``Latin'' chord progressions and edgy brass interjections survived, while the melismatic upper-register vocals of Islamic muezzins with the accompanying Arabic modalities were introduced, resulting in a fresh harmonic mix. The richness of traditional Wolof percussion patterns were woven in with sabars (large bass drums), djembes (carved hand drums with goatskin heads) and tamas (double-headed hourglass-shaped drums that are made to ``talk'' by squeezing them under one's armpit) played alongside the Western drum kit. The rapid-fire dialog between the singer and the tama player is often the climax of a song. The resulting sound came to be known as mbalax, and its underpinning aesthetics are hot, fast, and complex. Mbalax also spawned its own high-stepping, high-energy dance called the ventilateur, which raised a ruckus among the pious because of the provocative manner in which the women hiked their boubous and flashed their forbidden legs.

Indisputably the seminal mbalax band was Étoile de Dakar. And Youssou N'Dour, who became its lead singer as a mere teenager, has nurtured the evolution of mbalax into an internationally recognized style. At the time of my visit to Senegal, he was emerging as the hottest star in the country and was looking toward a wider horizon through collaborations with Peter Gabriel. Since then he has used his clout and money to open his own recording studio and label in Dakar to promote other local musicians, an admirable attitude in a time when most famous African popsters opt to live the high life in Paris or London. Fortunately, Senegal has an unusually robust internal market that buys its own music rather than imported soukous or zouk or reggae. The vitality of the local music scene can be seen and heard while walking around the market in any city, with tiny cassette stalls crammed full of the latest releases and bootleg recordings, the boom box blasting out the current hits. Everyone has his or her favorite band, and amiable arguments can break out over a glass of café au lait about the relative merits of each one.

Although Youssou N'Dour has been generally acknowledged to be the top dog for some time, other musicians have emerged with their own take on the Senegalese sound. Baaba Maal purveys a more diversified style with recent forays into hiphop and orchestral arrangements to go along with his sophisticated, socially conscious lyrics. His bluesy acoustic duets with the blind guitarist, Mansour Seck, show his rootsy side, while performances with his electric band, Dande Lenol, draw large, dance-minded audiences. Ismael Lô, who is also a painter, is more introspective, and there are traces of the Western folk revival in his songs. The band of the moment for the urban youth of Dakar differs from month to month (Xalam was the choice at the time of my visit), but the various incarnations of Super Diamono, with their stripped down rock-mbalax (and attitude to boot), have stood the test of time. For relative old-timers there is Touré Kunda, a reggae-heavy group that predates the rise of mbalax.

These days you can see Youssou N'Dour or Baaba Maal play in cities like Boston or Denver or Seattle. But beware that they play different sets on their overseas gigs from the ones at home. The same is true on their albums: the domestic-only cassette releases contain songs not available on Western CDs that are thought to only appeal to the locals. So nothing beats being there for the real thing. You're standing barefoot on the beach at Mbour with a bottle of Gazelle beer in hand, the band members are wandering on stage one by one, the crowd is jockeying for the prime spots, and the guy next to you is hoisting up a tape machine on his shoulder preparing to make a bootleg recording. The PA system squeals with feedback as the MC introduces the band. The opening wave of sound from the stage is met by the roar of audience approval. Adrenaline charges the expressions on everyone's face. You look up at the clear night sky and thank the stars that you decided to come to Senegal.

Selected Senegalese Discography

Étoile de Dakar, Thiopathioly, Stern's
Ismael Lô, Diawar, Stern's
Baaba Maal, Firin' in Fouta, Mango
Baaba Maal and Dande Lenol, Wango, Syllart
Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, Djam Leelii, Mango
Youssou N'Dour, Eyes Open, Columbia
Youssou N'Dour, Set, Virgin
Omar Pene and Super Diamono, Fari, Stern's
Touré Kunda, The Best of Touré Kunda, Celluloid
Xalam, Apartheid, Encore

Copyright 1996, John Cho

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