Posts Tagged ‘Youssou N’Dour’

The Monument – a short sequel

April 4, 2013

Three years ago this very day, God received many earthly guests for the official dedication of the Monument erected to the eternal Glory of Himself and his Family. I wrote a piece about it, which a lot of you rather liked.

Today, as Senegal celebrates its 53rd birthday, it’s a good occasion to revisit the story of the Monument for the African Renaissance, designed to portray, according to God’s own words, an Africa “that emerges from obscurantism, prejudice and other ills.” It always takes religion, no matter which one, to create a gap as wide as the Pacific between words and actions.

Senegal is trying to recover from God’s reign and the Monument remains a powerful symbol of everything that was wrong with it. There is, for instance, the matter of who paid for this? And how much? The financial construction was rather…obscure and involved the sale of prime Dakar real estate to the North Korean company Mansudae Overseas that built the monstrosity. We don’t talk any longer about the blight on the horizon of this great city but a poll would in all likelihood reveal a majority in favour of blowing the damn thing up. Allegedly, current president Macky Sall pledged such during his winning campaign. But that might be rumour.


So yes, you got that right: in order to build His Monument, God, otherwise known as the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade, an avowed free market politician and a conservative liberal sold a piece of his country to a hereditary kingdom, nominally communist. The details of this deal are currently under investigation by officials of an agency called the General State Inspection.

But there is more news. And as always, anything to do with the Wade era revolves around the only thing that really matters to him, money.

You may remember that Wade had declared himself the intellectual owner of the Monument. Of course. This is, after all, the same man who during his last campaign declared that those who failed to acknowledge His achievements ought to be…struck with blindness. Very merciful, very compassionate.

Now, as the Designer-In-Chief, Wade had declared that 35% of the proceeds would flow into his extraordinarily wide and deep pockets. Except that he was not the D-I-C. And now, current minister for Culture Abdoul Aziz Mbaye has declared that as far as he is concerned, the ex-president will not get a penny. ‘Let him first tell us how he is, by rights, the author,’ the minister declared.


How times have changed. Incredibly, God lost an election last year and has, appropriately, retired to Versailles. L’État, c’est Moi, n’est-ce pas? According to newspaper reports he is bored out of his skull. Meanwhile, the communist Kingdom of North Korea is going through an unusually tempestuous phase of its ritual sabre-rattling. Obscurantism had to be forcefully removed from neighbouring Mali and remains defiantly undefeated. And the minister for Tourism, a certain Youssou Ndour, has his work cut out for him because Senegal has fallen off the holiday map.

All of which means: no income from the Monument for Mister Wade. And here’s a pretty merciless cartoonist, who thinks that the man who disfigured Dakar’s horizon forever may well be falling on very hard times indeed…

The minister: 'Giving you money for a work that belongs to me - no way.' Street vendor, uncannily looking like a former president: 'But it's me the artist! Give me my money!!'

The minister: ‘Giving you money for a work that belongs to me – no way.’ Street vendor, uncannily looking like a former president: ‘But it’s me the artist! Give me my money!!’

21st century African popular music is – mostly – shite

March 9, 2013

I am sitting in my room concentrating on a piece of writing and an editing job. Outside, there is a constant, never-ending annoying metallic drone. Someone got hold of the latest pop tune and seems to be playing it incessantly on an infinite loop. It is the kind of metallic mobile phone noise, an audio pest around the world. A pox on the houses of those who invented it…

But where am I? Not in Amsterdam, where this occurs daily. I’m in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And the music’s not from the UK or the US. It’s from Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana. YES – it’s time we said it: the bulk of pop music from Africa these days…is…utter fecking shite. Boring, formulaic, monotonous, the same electronically modified voicelets droning on, and on, and on. Unadulterated crapola.

It’s not necessarily a generational thing. There was a clip of a band playing on Burkina Faso’s national television at the weekend. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. One of the young men helping out at the reception said: ‘Ah, that’s from the time when we made really good music here….’

‘What do you mean…?’

‘Music today? Ah – it’s nothing.’ End of conversation.


This has pretty serious consequences for a branch of the music industry known as world music. It relied for a significant part on musical discoveries from Africa. Of which there were a lot in the 1980s and 90s, not least because there was a massive back catalogues that could be culled. Some artists from those catalogues decided to ride the World Music Wave, some pretty successfully: Youssou Ndour, Mory Kanté, Salif Keita, and of course Miriam Makeba was there before everybody else.

Sure, some rich seams remain and a label like Analog Africa continues to lovingly uncover them. But here’s the problem: there is little new input. You don’t wow an audience with 21st century shite pop music. Well, not a “world music” audience anyway.

Ah yes, that audience! The “world” music scene was, and is (let’s just continue to be honest) overwhelmingly Western, well-educated, well-heeled – and white. A part of this audience uses sounds from the rest of the world as a backdrop for endless excited conversations about their awfully eventless lives. Take Amsterdam, where the moneyed set jumped from Buena Vista Social Club to Orchestre Baobab and Cesaria Evora. They spoil concerts with their inane cacklings, play their CDs once and return them to their racks after the fad’s gone.


But there is a group of real afficionadoes, including yours truly. Snobs? Yep – and proud of it. But we are having to do a lot of thinking lately. What happens when the music well dries up? And the answer, in my mind, has been surprisingly simple: re-label. I am slowly but surely effacing the label “world music” and consigning it to memory. Three things make this exercise even easier than I thought.

1. Music today is bought or stolen online, so the original rationale for the “world” label no longer exists. Personally, I think it’s a terrible loss but record shops are no longer the first port of call for someone looking for music and that’s what the label “world” was designed for.

2. The artists who were put in that category never considered themselves “world” artists. They make pop, funk, soul, mbalax, bhangra, rumba, salsa, chimurenga, hip hop. File under those. The “world” category will shrink markedly.

3. When MTV shows clips from Côte d’Ivoire and popular radio stations ask me for a Q&A about music from Mali and Staff Benda Bilili (now split, unfortunately) plays to 50,000 people at Holland’s largest pop festival, we know that the case for “world” music is both lost and won. The consumers of that music don’t care where it’s from. They either like it or they don’t.

Which means that away from the obsolete genre discussion, we come down to the same equation: there are only two kinds of music – good and bad. Or as a musician quipped: yours and mine. That still leaves me with the question what to do about that blooming radio outside my window. Simple: file under “shite”.

Four Easy Pieces – 2

December 23, 2012

Of course: it was the Left that had sent me on my way to Southern Africa. Teaching in Zimbabwe was my minute contribution to the project of constructing a Southern Africa where racial superiority thinking would be a thing of the past, sort of. Nearly every country in the region had shed it – at least formally – and in the late 1980s it was already crystal clear that the last remaining bulwark, apartheid South Africa, would be next.

That was the message of a massive musical extravaganza, the Harare leg of a series of world-class concerts called Human Rights Now. It had been organised by Amnesty International in 1988. I was fortunate enough to be there. Peter Gabriel! Tracy Chapman! Bruce Springsteen! Oliver Mtukudzi! And the high point? Music I had never heard before – mbalax, made by the man I share this city with and had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this year: Youssou Ndour.

But there were other matters I was blissfully, stupendously unaware of, and not just inside Zimbabwe itself. Under my radar, something was happening to the movement I felt myself part of. This became much more evident when I had – reluctantly – returned to Europe. I noticed screed after column after thesis, with increasing frequency and loudness, denouncing a portion of society deemed congenitally “racist”, “sexist”,  “homophobe”. That portion was, inevitably, the only group that was able, by dint of breathing in and breathing out, to be all these things at the same time. In one phrase: people who looked – more or less – like me.

With hindsight the following question is legitimate: could it be, that when we progressives were busy throwing out one reprehensible form of thinking like apartheid…through the front door, through the backdoor, off the balcony if necessary…could it be that we were simultaneously inviting into the living room another form of reprehensible thinking? One that did not sound exactly similar but was, in point of fact, exactly the same? I think now that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes”.

My other city, Amsterdam, where I was born, had a proud tradition of social-democratic rule. It gave us, among many other things, housing projects for the working classes that are still the envy of the world. It would have been utterly inconceivable for those who designed these plans that their ideas about “uplifting the masses”, to use that ancient phrase, would have excluded specific groups because of how they looked. That was precisely what fascism had been about and wherever it reared its head, progressives joined forces to ensure it did not  gain power again. Today, the left is powerless to defeat it. Why? Because it has been dabbling in what I prefer to call: feel-good fascism.

Sometimes, a dramatic event can serve to highlight this like no other. Part three, tomorrow.

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!


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)

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…

Ah…the joys of radio… (production, that is)

December 21, 2009

If you don’t have a studio and you want to record your own voice for a radio program – and you live in a popular area of Dakar – this is how you go about it.

Wait until after midnight. It will be reasonably quiet, by then

Have your texts ready.

Close all windows.

Put everything that can possibly absorb sound (furniture, lots of clothes) into the place where you will record. In my case, that’s the bedroom because it has an extra door I can close.

Dive under the bedsheets for extra sound isolation. Take your recording equipment with you.

Start recording your text…hang on a minute, what’s that? A jet taking off from the nearby airport – which never closes. Press the “stop” button. Wait for plane to be gone, this is a noise you can’t shut out.

Quiet again. Start recording your text…sorry, what am I hearing? Some kid in the next flat has decided to fiddle around with some kind of electronic gadget. Beep beep. Windows don’t stop that. Wait until he stops. I now officially hate electronic gadgets.

Quiet again. No, not quiet. There are crickets. Very sharp metallic sound. Loud, too. Oh – and the gadget’s back too. And there’s another jet taking off. All I need now is for someone to start playing Youssou N’Dour’s latest bestseller. Just switch on the telly, he’s there all the time.

Wait. Someone’s just done that. Tell you what, I’ll get a drink, go to sleep, wait some more…

Very early in the morning. All quiet. The only thing I can hear is the Atlantic roaring nearby. But the windows, the door and the bedsheets keep that noise out.


Script ready? Check.

Microphone working? Check.

Sound levels? (…another damn plane, doesn’t matter, not recording now…) Check.

Alright then. Breathe in. Start reading text.


That’s not me, that’s a call to prayer – but it’s bloody 4am!! Why is he doing this NOW?? It’s not due until, what, 5:30 or something. Ah, but religion here is like the airport: it never shuts down.

(You may be happy to know that at around 5am I got the texts done. Just in time for prayer, that’s right. And if someone reading this has a nice quiet studio that I can use – contact me. I’ll even pay.)

Back in Yoff

December 16, 2009

Flew in from Yaoundé tonight, back here in my favourite Yoff restaurant (it’s called Figo, just in case you forgot) and after almost two weeks of being deprived from “mbalax”, the ubiquitous high energy fast and furious Senegalese dance music, I am being treated to the new local Youssou N’Dour album. Excellent stuff and just in time for the local Christmas sales. Yes, it’s a Muslim country but they celebrate this one too. Anything to throw a party. And this album is party time writ large. He’s on form and in form and so is his band, Le Super Etoile de Dakar. (Then again, I have never seen his band NOT in form….)

The album’s called “Soleil, soleil”, as one of the always impeccably charming waitresses just told me and it’s got some seriously up-tempo re-workings of his old “Western” material. If you can’t get it where you are…errr….you are missing out. More anon – Saint Louis’s birthday bash is next!