Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Views from the hill

April 24, 2012

This has not been a very active and/or productive month and that’s because I was hiding. Here:

This is what you see when you sit on an uphill terrace in the city that was home to Cesaria Evora. In the early evening, the view looks like this…

In the foreground, the street leading to downtown Mindelo, because that’s where we are. In the background, a French frigate. I was told that during the Senegalese elections a French warship was spotted around Cabo Verde. Some folks never seem to learn. Still, you have to wait until…

…before the music comes out. It was in the bars and taverns downtown that Cesaria Evora was singing to sailors. She also performed on Portuguese cruise ships before the rest of the world discovered the twin magic of her voice and Cape Verdian music.

Today, you’ll come across the good, the mediocre and the embarrassing in all shapes and sizes. I was subjected to some seriously off-key morna in a restaurant but in this very same town you only have to walk down the street and run into Tcheka and Lura, two of the best voices Cabo Verde has to offer. They may play somewhere tonight – but then again, they may not. Beer and grogue, a lethal local distilled drink, widely available. Good food too.

I’ll be back here, staying in the superb Solar Windelo for the view, flying to the capital Praia for the excellent Kriol Jazz Festival (more about that at some other point), and taking the boat out to Santo Antão, the next island, for some spectacular mountain walking. If only to sweat out the grogue

Outside the airport, which is named after her, there’s a statue of Cesaria Evora, in her characteristic, almost nonchalant pose, holding a microphone. I took my imaginary hat off and bowed. I didn’t think she’d mind…

Mali and Tinariwen

April 8, 2012

I’m doing a cross-posting here, from a piece I wrote for the music and current affairs website News and Noise. Here it is: 

More original blogg stuff on the way but not right now. Busy!

Getting to see the world’s most famous Senegalese citizen

January 10, 2012

He has the fastest selling newspaper in Senegal – it says circulation 85,000 which is massive considering that it’s in French and not everyone can afford a newspaper every day.

He also has the biggest tv station in the country, in a well-designed building in Almadies, not a part of Dakar that I normally care about. But hey – if you want to interview Youssou N’Dour you go the extra mile.

TFM it’s called. Smooth media operation in a cool building. You wait a little in an actual waiting room, while a torrent of people walk in and out and through. You may have luck today but then again you may not. Time once put him on the list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

And this is home. So – Youssou N’Dour is busy. Very busy. Even more so when you take your family obligations seriously, as well you should.

And now he is going into politics. Which is why I want to see him.

On my third trek to the TFM building I have a polite conversation with the secretary who tells me that, er, he’s not there at the appointed hour. So, back to the waiting room. But then, a quick phone call and a mad rush to a large house nearby. Pfff. Thank the stars that it isn’t hot.

Lovely garden and he casually strolls in.

‘Salaam aleikoum.’

‘Maleikoum salaam.’

Follows almost fifteen minutes of recorded conversation with the world’s most famous Senegalese citizen.

And even this congenitally sceptical journalist cannot help but be impressed by someone who has to cram a 48 hour program into a 24 hour day and has the capacity to sit on a bench, in a tracksuit, and explain his presidential ambitions to you without ever giving even the slightest hint that he really surely definitely must dash off to appointment number XYZ today.

That, in my book, is class. I am not sure if he’ll make and I can’t even make up my mind about whether he should be doing this. But I wish him good luck. Oh and thanks for the interview…

Which you can read very shortly on


(book reviews will resume shortly)

Terrace, veranda, music

April 11, 2011

Outside terrace, Hotel SIB, Dalaba, Guines

This place is divine. Even better when the two schmoozing students have taken their leave from “my” terrace. Well, not so much because they are young but rather because when they leave, their mobile phone leaves too. And not even because it is a mobile phone but because it has a small metallic-sounding loudspeaker that has been incessantly emitting a steady stream of US-made R&B. R&B is a disease that has covered the world in a thick, slimy, rancid layer of audio vomit. It has even reached this part of the planet, which produces vastly superior sounds of its own.

The metallic noise retreats and I am left with the sound of birds and miles and miles and miles of mountains and valleys below and beyond.


‘This is where she used to sit and rehearse with the musicians.’ A broad veranda, same view as the hotel terrace: mountains, alleys, trees, flowers. Birdsong all the time, insects zoom. This idyllic setting is the place where Miriam Makeba decided to settle, late 1960s, away from the ineptly named “government” of her own South Africa. The apartheid regime of the day refused her entry to the country, so she could go and bury her mother. So she may be forgiven for overlooking the rank cruelty of her new host, Guinea’s first president Ahmed Sékou Touré; after all: that cruelty was not directed at her but at Guinean citizens who had the temerity to disagree with the Visionary Guide and Leader.

Ever since I entered Dalaba, music has been buzzing in my head. A large orchestra in an echo chamber, yes, recording facilities were rather primitive. But then also: the distinct, crystal sound of a kora cutting the air above the orchestra. Punctuating percussion, sounding a bit hollow – yes, recording facilities and all that. And then an old Manding melody sung in that voice, instantly recognisable. No “Click Song” or “Pata Pata”. This is altogether different: “La Guinée Horoya”. You can hear that the South African vocal chords need adaptation to follow the broad flow of West Africa’s songlines but she handles it admirably. And now I am standing in the place where that music was created. Next to Mr Bah Mamadou Alpha, who was charged with welcoming the world-famous singer, when she came driving up from Conakry to the mountain resort she chose to stay. ‘She didn’t like protocol,’ he recalls. ‘She would just come into my house, sit and talk, and then go home and cook her own meals…’


Makeba describes life in Dalaba and her reasons for not returning there in her autobiography. If you haven’t read it, get yourself to a library or a bookstore. Her musicians have gone and we must rush back to our original terrace where there is a bit of a din going on. Let’s see…a big boombox on the terrace floor. Local flute (Peul flute it’s called, very beautiful distinct sound, the player sometimes sings and breathes into the instrument at the same time), stop-start syncope rhythm, gravel-like but clear voice…there is some serious Fouta roots music happening here. And they have come here, singer, dancers, to record the video clip. It will be almost indistinguishable from all the other Guinea clips: flailing limbs, flowing boubous, swift and subtle hand movements and always against beautiful decors: the sea, Conakry’s landmark hotels or indeed: SIB’s terrace.

The boombox belts, the singer and dancers go through the motions and an hour later, this bit of the video has been done. It will be mixed and mashed with similar dancing routines against different decors. But hey – thank Christ, the stars and whatever else you believe in: R&B it ain’t. Phew!

Balla Onivogui (1938 – 2011)

March 21, 2011

Balla Onivogui, trumpet player, composer, arranger and leader of one of the greatest bands from the Golden Age of Guinean music: Balla et ses Balladins. He passed away a week ago today.

Balla was a founder member of Guinea’s first post-independence band, L’ Orchestre Syli. Due to its size, Syli split in two and Balla found himself at the head of Jardin de Guinée, some 50 years ago.

Jardin de Guinée, very early 1960s

You can already hear what became his the trademark sound: gentle, lilting songs that had a knack of wandering slowly into your memory through your ears – and staying there, forever.

Here’s an example from later date:

Jardin de Guinée morphed into Balla et ses Balladins, among the top performers of the Guinean music scene. The band briefly had to change its name into Pivi et ses Balladins (after the second band leader), following a short-lived political conflict between Balla and a minister. Remember that all this glorious music was produced under strict state control and the slightest tiff with the government could end your career.

None of this affected the music.

The cover photo for their last album Objectif perfection

Their last album Objectif perfection was my very first encounter with that great Guinean sound of the 1960s and 70s. It was made at the very tail end of that era and they had every reason to call the album exactly that: it was perfect. No coincidence that Stern’s Africa used a good chunk of “Objectif…” on its luxury 2 CD set, which you should all acquire forthwith.

Here’s just one track from that perfect album…

So here’s to a fine musician and here’s to the remaining members of that dwindling musical fraternity from the golden age, some of whom I hope to see when I visit Conakry legendary La Paiotte, shortly.

The two great bandleaders, Balla Onivogui (l) and Pivi Moriba

the song from above

March 11, 2011

You know it’s morning when you hear this quick succession:



“Allahu Akhbar!

It’s the call for morning prayer, loudhailed across the roofs and alleys and nooks and balconies and sleeping heads of the city.

And they fly over it all in many different ways.

Some are painfully off-key; message being more important than the music. Some are clear and loud, intoning the call to prayer in one perfectly pitched phrase.

And one, not far from my home, turns the daily exercise into an operatic experience. With frills and dramatic vibrato and a slightly higher pitched crescendo towards the end. The singer understands that his celestial drama must be taken in moderation. So you do not hear him five times a day.

But when you do, it’s breathtaking. Rigoletto meets God.

The music in my head

January 18, 2011

Quite fitting. I live in Dakar, have a nice little archive of West African music, write about it sometimes…and then I come across “The Music In My Head”. It’s a novel by writer and music critic Mark Hudson and published just over a decade ago. I know the music, heard about the book but never read it.

So, I am very very late with this but that mere fact (in keeping with the main character of the book) just shows you how totally cool I am. Right?

Everyone who has dipped even a small toe in the music business knows that it’s peopled with all kinds of characters and that there is among them a fairly sizeable contingent of individuals who are just, how shall I put it…not very nice. Even though they say they are.

That’s Andrew ‘Litch’ Litchfield, for you, our hero. In the book, he runs a label (of course), he claims deep, profound knowledge of non-White music, he never stops talking, and, oh yes: he has been everywhere. Bolivia. The Caribbean. Seville. Albania. The Himalayas. But nowhere feels better than here, this city, so thinly disguised in the story that the reader immediately recognises Dakar.

A full blown classic

Dakar is of course home to Youssou N’Dour who fronted the legendary Etoile de Dakar. Again thinly disguised, N’Dour (and he does have a melting syrup quality voice like no-one else) plays a major part in Litch’s life. Our World Music Expert, however, makers a mistake. He thinks that he also matters in the life of the great artist. He does not.

Oh and by the way: don’t ever make the mistake of associating Litch with World Music, OK? That’s a totally uncool bland marketing term.

In spite of all his bluster it all ends pretty badly for our authentic music expert. In fact, it ends so badly that he gets deported from the country, after a security officer has told him that he is ‘insignificant’. Ouch!

In the intervening pages a host of characters passes by. Salif Keita, other Senegalese musicians like Pape Seck, Youssou N’Dour’s band, Peter Gabriel, a world music DJ who has never been out of London, an A&R woman who would not know a kora from a balafon but ends up stealing “his” artists, a university graduate who sees the country and its people as a decor for her own larger-than-life drama…

A few of them come out fine, most do not. Which is one of Litch’s rare charms: he is unapologetically judgemental because he thinks he has earned the right. And dammit – sometimes he is right, even though this deep music expert cannot get out of his hotel room without putting his foot quite terribly wrong…

Downtown Dakar. You cannot see my house from here...

But in a way, all these characters are marginal. There are two main players in “The Music In My Head”. One is Dakar, the magnificent home to some of the best music on the planet and, in Litch’s words, ‘the most arrogantly beautiful women on earth.’ (I would agree with “beautiful” in that statement) The only thing I do not recognise at all is the level of danger he associates the city with. Sure, there are places to avoid but Dakar is nowhere near as paranoid as say, Johannesburg. Far, far from it.


The other, the main player, the music. Frenetic drums at a street party that play rhythms you only begin to understand after listening a thousand times. Soaring religious chants at the great annual Senegalese pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba. A band that records one psychedelic song in a garage using pre-historic recording equipment and scores a massive hit – the next day. And of course, Youssou N’Dour in concert and in full majestic flow.

Hudson describes these very well and so you’ll forgive him for some of Litch’s overlong clunky sentences, his ramblings about World Music (long but interesting) and his musings about life in England (long and boring).

But most of all: get the CD, will ya? Classic and I mean utterly classic tunes. Including that garage hit I told you about. Must end here, or else I’ll start sounding like Litch. Now there’s a scary thought…

Diamond Fingers

December 28, 2010

in full - and fast - flow

Certainly: not the best picture I could have taken but things were rather special on this otherwise so very ordinary Monday night. Round about midnight, a band strolls onto stage. Drums, bass, acoustic guitar, rhythm guitar and…

…another man, wearing one of his trademark multi-coloured shirts. Diamond Fingers, they call him. He chats a bit with the sounds engineers, his back to the audience.

Then the announcer comes on stage. He is in the wrong job. He should be reciting the telephone directory here. He massively improves the party atmosphere by reminding us all, in his flat-as-a-drone diction, that only a few hundred metres from here a traffic accident killed  one of Africa’s best-loved singers, Alpha Demba Camara. He and Diamond Fingers were founder members of the legendary Bembeya Jazz, in 1961…

Thanks heavens for Sékou “Bembeya” “Diamond Fingers” Diabaté and his beloved guitar! He made us forget the funereal introduction in less that 5 seconds flat. ‘Aaaah – this is music…’ I hear someone sigh. He’s Guinean, like Sékou, like most of the audience tonight.

Oh yes, this is music.

For the next hour or so, Diamond Fingers regales us with some classics (Sou), weaves bits and pieces of other classics into his own songs at will (I think I heard some Armée Guinéenne, Ballaké, Dagna), his band following effortlessly. He walks off the stage with his guitar, notes cascading, falling over themselves as he serenades the front row. He turns the all-seater open air theatre into a heaving mass of dancing bodies, to the consternation of the security guards who are not used to such a carnival. He gets the singalongs going, cracks jokes, invites and old man onto the stage who jumps rope in time with his chords, sings a sentimental Guinean tune (very schmalzy that!) and gets the crowd moving again with a great Latinesque jive.

And then it was over.

‘I saw a man cry,’ says a young Senegalese rapper who I meet on the way out. Of course. That’s what you do when you are finally allowed a glimpse of heaven, if only for an hour. Very nice, too, to just forget about journalism for an while and be a simple, awestruck fan…

Bembeya Jazz plays on New Year’s Eve, I was told. By the time they finish that show, the group will be…50. Not just the best but also the oldest band in the world.


December 17, 2010

Well, it takes all kinds at this Third Global Festival of the Black Arts. Although the more apt name would be the Umpteenth Festival to increase the Profile and Glory of the President of this nominal Republic and his Family. Price tag apparently some €50m.

So here I was, gazing up at this:

Playing under the giant. Pic taken of Etran Finatawa, Tuesday December 14

(remember this)

and…waiting for the Kora Jazz Trio, whose glorious output will certainly outlast anything Senegal’s current crop of megalomaniac leaders throw at the good folks of this country. And mind you, now that the North Korean pomposity known as the Monument for the African Renaissance is there, you might as well enjoy it. It is festively lighted up in the evening, you can walk up its stairs and enjoy and absolutely stunning view of the Great Fantastic City of Dakar.

I can (almost) see my house from here. Lights in the middle: the airport

When I walked down the stairs, I heard the gravel voice and rough-around-the edges saxophone of Archie Shepp. One of the greats from the 20th Century’s most important contribution to music: jazz.

He was, in spite of his advanced age, in good form on that chilly, unprotected windy Monumental hillside. But many visitors were neither aware nor cared much about the man, his music. Case in point: the brief but charming development of a Chinese-Senegalese friendship, built around what appears to be a Monumental obsession of people all around the world: taking pictures of themselves and each other. Maybe God knows why. Or president Wade. He knows everything.

Mr Shepp is playing. A standard, a city blues or a nice bit of the real classic stuff: melody – sax – piano – bass – drums. All are excellent. Oblivious about all this, a few Chinese workers, probably plucked straight from China’s vast rural labour reserves, traipse around the premises, shooting films and taking pictures. Two rather large and very well constructed Senegalese ladies enter the scene, dressed, as always, to the nines. They start taking pictures of themselves and each other as well and very soon there is a whole series of musical chairs going on right in front of me: Chinese and Senegalese pose in all possible combinations and take pictures of each other. Then the China guys are getting a little too friendly and the two dames depart with their dignity fully intact. Meanwhile, Mr Shepp plays.

And it is somewhat disorienting to hear him rail against injustices of the past, when most of the United States was an apartheid state, and then cry “Revolution” – under a Monument whose only raison d’être, as every Senegalese will tell you, is the glorification of the ruling family. This is how one commenter put it the next day: whenever there is a problem in this country, no money, no food, no transport, all that Wade does is tell the Senegalese to go and dance!

Down the stairs and dance!

Well put. But dance we did, in the end, under the Monument. Thanks to another giant with a career spanning more than half a century. Manu Dibango guided his 13 piece band through the motions, greatly helped along by a characteristically boisterous Cameroonian delegation, how did they find out that Manu would show up here? He was nowhere on the programme…

‘Ah you’re all working tomorrow, right? OK, we’ll keep it brief…’ He did, sort of. As I left well after midnight, he had just announced the last piece, having taken us on a ride through jazz, makossa, latin, salsa, afrobeat, funk and whatever else in a great Pan-Africa, Pan-World, Pan-Whatever, planetary fashion. Maybe, if he manages to get some Chinese sounds woven into the mix, these guys will for a minute stop taking pictures…

PS: the Kora Jazz Trio did not play that night. Maybe another time…

Max Usufa

April 9, 2010

Reggae man from Senegal. Combines an arresting stage presence with real pleasant charm. Starting to make waves here in Dakar. Working on a clip, a first single, concerts, hopefully an international tour, an album and a bit of promotion.

Which he richly deserves. Have a look at his myspace page and spread the word.

(And this, sadly, is my last entry from Dakar but I will keep the blog going for two reasons. Number one: I’ll be back in Dakar!  (And I honestly can’t wait sitting here at my desk, writing this and looking at the Yoff skyline and thinking this will be far away very very soon….)

Number two: I still have to give you those musings on music. Which I will. And with the festival summer season coming up there will definitely be plenty to talk about.

And number three: there’s enough stuff floating around in my head, on bits of paper, notebooks (including this computer) to keep writing.

Meanwhile, I do hope you have enjoyed it so far. Next entry: from Amsterdam….!)