Posts Tagged ‘Baaba Maal’

The Africa Express – 2

September 30, 2012

A bland, corporate, bland, nanny state-run, apparently inescapable surveillance society. It’s everywhere and if there’s one thing that exemplifies it – it’s probably pop music. The ubiquitous conveyor-belt drone without a tune, without a story. Tweedledee – the singer goes up two notes. Tweedledum – she goes down two notes. Bland offensive nothingness. It makes me want to take out every single irritating loudspeaker within earshot. That would make me an “unusual object”, if not a public nuisance. Pointing out that the public nuisance is actually hanging from the ceiling by the hundredfold will be remarkably unimpressive to the officer charging me with vandalism.

But one can dream.

So is there any escape from this? Looks like there are two options: when you’ve got too much money – or too little. An advert in a national daily (a quality broadsheet of course) advertised “Yoga session at sea”. Apparently you’re being taken offshore and then subjected to yoga. You will have to part with one thousand three hundred pounds for the privilege.

Meanwhile, somewhere in town, one elderly man who can only dream of splashing huge amounts of money on an offshore wellness session stands, completely unconcerned, next to a square piece of street furniture, probably a distribution facility belonging to a power utility. It’s large enough to spread a tabloid on. He reads, roll-up cigarette in mouth and a can of cheap beer in his hand. Another one sits on an bench in the morning when I pass by on my way to the Underground; still there in the afternoon when I return. He may have been there all day; he may not. But he appears to be his own boss, though he’d likely be astonished, not to mention annoyed, to hear anyone professing to envy his lifestyle.

Earlier this month, there was blast of non-blandness criss-crossing the United Kingdom. Aboard a steam train, a relic of a non-bland past (well, ok, people did die like flies of pneumonia), was traveling a motley crew of musicians. Judging by the reviews it must have been a riot. The Africa Express it was called and there were quite a few artists on it that I once interviewed. Baaba Maal for instance, the regal singer from Podor, North Senegal, where I had visited him (briefly) at home early 2010. Or the hugely original Fatoumata Diawara, whom I interviewed for Radio Netherlands and whose debut album (“Fatou”) I cannot recommend high enough.

In a country where corporate chains pretend to sell “authentic food” in places where people are constantly reminded that “we are committed to delivering solutions to our customers for their own safety and security” under a blanket of tuneless pop on a constant loop, the Africa Express went down a blast for those who were there, even when the performances were (reportedly) chaotic at times.

And that’s of course precisely the point. Most lives here and elsewhere are not nearly chaotic enough, most of the time. And it seems as if the majority are fine with that. Being an “unusual object”, I find that frightening. But I cannot possibly imagine someone walking away from the rhythms and the steam and the heat and the sheer musical  genius of The Africa Express – back into the world of cubicles and corporate food stalls and back to “…for your own safety and security…”…

…and not wanting to smash up at least one of those damned droning speakers.

Thinking aloud…

February 25, 2012

In Senegal today, the election noise has stopped washing all around us and the candidates all await the Big Day, Sunday February 26th, to cast their votes. Time to revive this blog with a reflection on what Youssou N’dour told me almost two months ago.

‘I want to change Senegal, I want to change Africa.’ It’s something he has been saying for long. But what change does he have in mind?


There are a number of things you don’t mess with in Senegal. One is religion. There was outrage when a policeman in riot gear threw a teargas grenade into the El Hadj Malick Sy mosque in downtown Dakar. It belongs to the Tidiane Muslim Brotherhood and their home city of Tivaouane exploded on hearing the news. ‘Sacrilege!’ was the verdict. And even a hasty ministerial apology and the lame excuse a week later that the policeman in question ‘did not know that it was a mosque,’ dixit his police chief, carried little weight.


The other thing is family. Youssou N’dour cancelled an interview because he had family maters to attend to. If that happens to the world’s most famous Senegalese citizen, then clearly we must be paying attention.

I had a similar experience when sitting in the courtyard of Baaba Maal’s beautiful home in the northern town of Podor. There were literally dozens of people at any one time there, waiting for an audition. Every ten minutes or so, the door would open and a new delegation would be brought in. What struck me when I was accorded my ten minutes with Baaba, was how relaxed he appeared under what must be incredible pressure. I don’t think anyone in the West understands the level of obligation people are under, when dealing with family matters, here, or anywhere else on this continent.

I asked Baaba how on earth he managed all this. He just smiled and said: ‘It’s an obligation I cannot walk away from.’

This is key and you must realise this. Whatever position you have in society, family is an obligation you cannot walk away from. Family overrides political persuasion, standing in society, the office you hold… Mind you: even religion – at least here in Senegal – has been organised by and around powerful families: Mbacké, Sy, Niass, and many more.

Family trumps everything. Whatever you, me, or anyone else thinks of it, that’s the simple truth.

So when Senegal’s most high profile man says that he wants to change his country, what does that mean? He gave me some idea during our interview: ‘You know what happened at Independence? We just took the hats of the colonizers and gave them to the Senegalese. Is that independence? It’s not!’

The State

This suggests to me very strongly that “change” means a return to values, organising principles and structures that are Senegalese. But there is a complication here. And this complication has a name: the State.

When the French arrived and replaced the traditional structures with a colonial state, however rudimentary, it created a structure of administration that interfered with the way things were run here traditionally. Both structures co-exist. But the state structure is the only one the outside world looks at (especially from the West) because it is recognisable and understandable.

In truth, it’s the weakest link, even in Senegal, which has had a stronger state tradition that most of its neighbours.

This also reminds me of an experience I had in Guinea. I was visiting the hometown of a (now disgraced) former banker. We (that is, me and a colleague from Conakry) visited the man’s lavish home and, crucially, his many fruit plantations. As we sat in his guesthouse that evening, my colleague said this: ‘You know, we all understand that what we have seen today has been financed in ways that we consider unscrupulous and illegal. But look at it this way: if everyone in government did the same, we would not need any development aid!’

I could see his point and yes, I also struggle with it. Because at one and the same time the State is subverted (money disappears) but it also benefits – tangibly though temporarily – the people close to the person subverting the State. Until he gets caught. It’s the ancient and still crucial theme of Ayi Kweyi Armah’s great novel The beautyful ones are not yet born.


So when Youssou N’dour talks about change, what does he have in mind? Family and religion will certainly be at the core of that change. But then again: it’s no change. Because if you take the view that in spite of colonial indoctrination people have not fundamentally changed the way they live their lives, “change” means: going back to who we are.

Where does that leave the State? Should it be allowed to die a natural death, as it is a strange body in an environment that is alien to it? Or could it be subsumed into a new order in a way that the Senegalese (and by extension, many Africans elsewhere) will construct for themselves?

No easy answers but it’s worth thinking about, on the eve of the most important elections in Senegal’s history. Hence this rather long piece. Open for debate!


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