Archive for January, 2010

Lomé, Togo – one week ago

January 18, 2010

France - Togo - EU - US

Photo taken a few days after the news had broken about the attack on the Togolese national football team in Cabinda, Angola. The show, of course, went on regardless. More stories on


January 17, 2010

Yes, I know, it’s been a while. But here’s a finger-licking good tale – enjoy!

Monument for the African Renaissance, Ouakam, Dakar

Yes folks, this is real. If I go to my rooftop terrace I can see it: the Monument for the African Renaissance. And it is the first thing YOU will see when you land at Dakar Airport. It sits atop a hill and is ‘larger than the Statue of Liberty,’ as president Abdoualye Wade loves to crow. And in his ongoing bid to turn this republic into a monarchy he has put his daughter in charge of the foundation that will manage the millions of euros, dollars, pounds, yens, renminbis and CFA Francs that will pour into this country once the Monument is officially open to the public.

Not that his royal ambitions always come to fruition. He failed to drop his son Karim on the hapless people of Dakar – who turned out not to be so hapless after all because they thumbed their nose at Wade Junior and voted for the opposition. Now, Karim is heading a ministry that merits an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records – for the longest name. He is in charge of infrastructures, air transport, transport in general, international cooperation and a few other things besides.

Basically, he is in charge of the same things he made a bit of a hash of when he ran ANOCI, the group that prepared the meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, three years ago. Journalist Abdou Latif Coulibaly has released a new book, in which he says that based on ANOCI’s own figures the whole shebang did not cost €109 million, as Karim claims – but almost three times as much. A staggering amount of money in a country that cannot feed, clothe, educate and heal its own people. Which is why they leave in droves.

And incidentally, the Monument points towards the Canary Islands, one of the main destinations of those who seek to exile themselves from Senegal in those small dangerous “pirogues” (small wooden boats). Irony of ironies: the name of the country is derived from “sunugaal”, which means: our little boat in Wolof, the main language here.

Alright. Back to the Thing on the Hill. It has cost upwards of €20 million to build. The president, as its intellectual proprietor (that is, he nicked the idea from renowned Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow), will take 35% of the projected revenues from monumental tourism. Provided, of course, that said tourists make it past the unspeakably chaotic airport exit and then recover from one of Africa’s most effective taxi mafias, which will majestically rip them off for even the smallest drive into town.

The money, incidentally, will go to support one of Wade’s pet projects that actually works rather well: les cases des tout-petits, a countrywide network of pre-primary school centres. Yep – it’s not all bad.

But most is. Reputations have been torn to shreds, lifelong friendships have turned into bitter feuds – take for instance old pals like the president and his (and the Monument’s) architect. They are having an almighty row, most probably about money. The First Lady, Viviane Wade, went to the Monumental construction site in person to provide the architect’s assistant with a royal kick in the backside. Off you go, then.

Alright – what else? Oh yes, the controversies surrounding the Monument include the issue of female nudity (she should cover up properly say the critics; the reply is: have you seen how our women under-dress when going out? and indeed: some do, others don’t according to mood, fashion, religious demands – or all three in the case of my girlfriend), the issue of religion (human representations are banned under Islam, I wrote this piece about the presidential reply, dreadfully cack-handed even for his standards), the issue of tradition (the woman is behind and below the man, what’s African about that…? All our great ancestors are female) and, indeed, the aesthetic side of things. Most people, when asked, think it’s eye-burningly ugly.

Old East German State Art: Fritz Cremer, Bronze, "Der Aufsteigende" (1967)

Which should come as no surprise. The Monument has been constructed by workers from one of the last countries on earth that is still capable of this sort of monumental megalomania: North Korea. (The others would be China and the USA.) More irony: a regime that calls itself “liberal” and replaced 40 years of post-independence rule by the Socialist Party uses one of the last self-defined “socialist” states, one that specialises in cigarette smuggling, arms exportation and bombastic architecture, to build a Monument celebrating Africa’s hopes, dreams and ambitions – or more precisely: stroking the collective ego of one mega-rich family and its sycophantic entourage.

Most of the other “socialist” states became extinct 21 years ago when the Berlin Wall came down. So I will take you to the former East German capital because that is where you find the most devastatingly apt comment on this sort of folly.

It’s a poem, by the celebrated singer/songwriter Wolf Biermann. Who voluntarily went from West to East Germany and then got himself kicked back to the West for writing critically about the ruling Socialist Unity Party.

They did not like this poem very much either. It’s  about a colossal statue that rises from the ground in an attempt to take off. Biermann describes the thing in great detail – you should hear him recite it! – and jubilantly concludes that YES! this colossus WILL of course take off!! Just like the broad sweep of the Monument for the African Renaissance ends with the index finger of the child pointing skywards.

But then the poet has another thought (the English words are mine, not his)

‘Now…just tell me:

That one over there,

Where’s he going?

Is he leading us?

Or is he fleeing us?

Or would he

– Something we were thinking already –

Be a symbol of the human species?

Is he on his way to Freedom up there


– Something we were thinking already –

To dinner?

Or goes there Humankind on a nuclear cloud en route to God


Something we were thinking already

To nowhere?’


January 6, 2010

Oumar runs the only decent CD shop in Senegal and it’s in Saint Louis. His CD stand changes little. For five years, Miles Davis’ On The Corner has been sitting atop his modest but cool collection of jazz CDs (Coltrane among them).

music man

Still, he’s got most of the latest and best music in store. (And if you’re looking for an artist to interview, chances are that he’s got their number…)

So what have I taken home this time?

Omar Pene’s new acoustic album, Ndam. An absolute must. ‘It’s too good,’ as Oumar always says when he likes an album.

An old Baaba Maal release, only locally available. He’s also has a new local one, coinciding with “Television”, but that one’s not out yet.

New music by the highly talented Ablaye Cissokho, from Saint Louis, who mixed jazz trumpet with kora on his first album and has gone a bit more poppy this time – but still good.

The African Jazz Project. A refreshing jazz project featuring (among others) French sax player Philippe Sellam and the incredible balafon player Ali Keita. Also features vocals, drums, percussion, bass, fula flute – nice.

Thanks Oumar, once again…

Podor and the small town syndrome

January 5, 2010

The mean streets of Podor

Lovely scene.

Fuels romantic notions of African sunsets in quiet stress-free backwaters.

Walking around a town on a Sunday does not really give you a feel for a place. But this is Podor, the northernmost town in Senegal, on the river that has given the country its name. Population around 12,000. It’s staunchly Muslim, so Sundays do not really matter much. And sure enough: the shops are open and the “commercants” (traders) are out in force.

On one street.

The rest looks pretty much like that picture above. Or below.

Podor riverside. The bar is on the far left corner.

Does anyone remember that John Cale/Lou Reed album “Songs for Drella”? It was dedicated to their friend Andy Warhol and it opens with a song called Small Town. One memorable line: “When you’re growing up in a small town/you say nobody famous ever came from here…”

Well Podor has not produced one but TWO world famous children. The first is Oumou Sy, who almost single-handedly has turned Dakar into an international fashion centre. Here‘s a brief profile I once wrote about her.

The second was the one I came to see. Baaba Maal. In concert in his hometown Saturday night December 26th – make that Sunday morning December 27th – in the company of his life-long friend Mansour Seck and his band Daande Lenol (the name means “Voice of the People”).

The crowd adores him. Baaba walks off the stage, stands in the middle of the arena. He expresses his thanks for the support the town has given him and his unique music festival Blues du Fleuve, held for the fourth time. And he has a message: I believe in the people of Podor, their creativity, the youth of this town and their energy. And just to show how much influence he can muster: one or two words from the master at the end of his mega show, at five in the morning – and the stadium empties out like a flash. I have never seen anything like it.

The festival over – and the town reverts to this.

My street for one day.

My Bed&Breakfast in the middle, beyond the road is the river and Senelec is the national electricity utility.

Baaba loves his town and its cultural heritage. Indeed: Podor is old. It was a royal capital in the 12th century. It was a French trading post (or “comptoir”) in the 18th century, when slaves, ivory and gum arabic were shipped downriver to Saint Louis, a journey of 200 kilometres.

But that was then and this is now. Much of the town, like the riverside, has fallen into disrepair. One world-famous son and one world-famous daughter cannot on their own reverse that. And besides, how long before their successors come along? Theirs are rare talents in any community.

And in the meantime…..

‘Aaaaaah, you’ve come to see Baaba Maal. Very good! He’s my friend!! I have known him since he was this small!!’ ‘My father taught him in primary school.’ I lost count of the people who came up to me, within one hour of arrival at the riverside bar pictured above, who told me of their connection with the great star, told me how great this town was, regaled me with their family history – and then proceeded to ask for beer, cigarettes, gin, money or a combination of the above. All convivial, all fine – but something felt not entirely right.

It all came together when I visited Baaba at his home. A fine building, tastefully designed, with a large garden. And instantly, it became clear why an interview here would be an impossibility. The place was overcrowded with family, praise-sigers, passers-by, hangers-on…and one Dutch journalist.

We had a two-minute chat. He smiled when I told him I admired the way he handled all the attention. Here, it’s an obligation – but one that would get on my nerves pretty quickly. But Baaba is graceful throughout, pays attention to everyone, talks, beams at a group of performers who have come to sing his praises. And when I leave after three hours in his court, the crowd shows no sign of thinning…

He also has a house in Dakar.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this. Podor has a lot of history – but not much of a future. It is far away from where the action is. Saint Louis: 215 kilometres; Dakar: close to 500. It lives off agriculture, a small amount of trade, a few visitors and its sons and daughters who have made it big. For the rest and especially the young ones, the options are few: hang around, become a sponger, or leave, just like the subject of the Reed/Cale song.

Across is Mauritania...and Dakar is far away


January 4, 2010

News I only heard this morning: the sad passing away at a far too young age of that wonderful singer Lhasa de Sela. Only three albums. First, a dramatic one called La Llorona. Then, a rich multi-layered rich offering, The Living Road. And her her last one, very intimate, just called Lhasa. Melancholy never far away. A quiet, almost husky voice, always drawing you in. If you haven’t heard about her, you should.

Just go here, but go quietly now.

Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer, on the first evening of the new year. She was 37.

New Year in Saint Louis

January 3, 2010

A minor scene, to set the stage for the new year.

I am sitting on the fly-infested terrace of Hotel de La Poste in Saint Louis, the old capital of French West Africa. Within earshot, the sounds of cars rattling along on the old, rusty bridge, named after the Frenchman Faidherbe, who ran this place in the 1860s. The bridge has been here for well over a century and is being replaced.

Pont Faidherbe, Saint Louis

Amidst the flies and the noise I am reading a new magazine: Melting Pop. It’s not the best of names but still: with a daring picture of South African dancer Neliswe Xaba on the cover you are sure to have an impact in this deeply conservative country. Melting Pop celebrates “métissage”, the mixing of minds, cultures, bodies and souls.

Enter a large fiftysomething French woman. Dressed to the nines, hair in an authoritative bun. Slippers. She is quite clearly of the opinion that we are still in the era of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the man who delivered mail by plane from France to Senegal – then still an internal flight.

She starts ordering Moussa about: take my luggage there, get my seat in the car ready, that sort of thing. Moussa is her servant, apparently, and maybe even her temporary toy-boy, who knows. He listens quasi attentively, decked in a bright “Fly Emirates” T-shirt, baseball cap on his head, jogging trousers, sport shoes. A cigarette loosely fits between two fingers of his right hand. The woman uses the kind of rapid-fire guttural French, which with time becomes indistinguishable from bubbling water in a French country river. I am sure Moussa misses at least two-thirds of what she is on about.

Melting Pop, meanwhile, turns out to be an interesting mix of photography, music (it features Mulatu Astatsqé’s sensational 2009 album and also Lisbon-based kuduro band Buraka Som Sistema), there’s also visual arts, reviews and fashion. Trendy stuff from the city. And then there are the more conventional things: the long interview, the resuscitation of Panafricanism and the long highbrow analytical article so beloved by Francophone authors. But on the whole, it’s interesting and challenging. Made in Dakar.

Melting Pop also has the obligatory “who’s up who’s down” page. IN and OUT it’s called. My predictions for 2010, the 50th birthday of Senegal and a baker’s dozen of other African countries: old Pont Faidherbe, Saint Exupéry and that rather insufferable French woman will be OUT. The new bridge, Melting Pop and the happy mixing of everything are coming IN. Oh, and Moussa too, although he may not be aware of it…