St. Louis is a beautiful, decaying old city in the far north of Senegal, located on an island near the mouth of the River Senegal. It used to be the capital, under the French, but has long since been crumbling away into the sand. It’s partly that the revenue from tourism and fishing is nowhere near enough to fund the maintenance/restoration of the old houses, but a greater problem is the way their ownership has passed down through the generations – not to a favourite son or daughter but to all the offspring equally. Now some are owned by several hundred people, and getting them all to agree to spend money on the house, or to sell it, is a major undertaking. Only when a balcony threatens to collapse onto the people walking below does the government step in, and several buildings look beyond repair. I would imagine the serious threat to this low-lying island of sea level rise doesn’t help.
However the sense of decay does add to the atmosphere of the place. One crumbling warehouse (roofless and windowless) makes an impressive backdrop to a display of old wooden masks and statues, so what would elsewhere be just another tourist shop here becomes a kind of gallery. There are real galleries, too, in the city – of textiles, and of modern African art. & above all there is music. A jazz festival has taken place here every year for the last couple of decades, with a number of big names playing the specially built ‘Quai des Arts’, but a thriving “off festival” (off-Quai?) scene has developed too so that many restaurants and bars host live music during the festival and throughout the year.
I’ve never had the time available to go for the full four days of the festival, and this year was no different, but I decided to go up for the weekend, to catch the last couple of days of Jazz 2010.
So on Saturday even I was in St. Louis, ready to enjoy a selection of trios, quartets and quintets from around the world. On the way, I stopped for some prawns in garlic with a glass of red wine in a local restaurant – and before I had finished my meal three musicians were warming up next to me to play in the restaurant. N’Dar Afro-Jazz. They were so good that I spent three hours enjoying their performance and never made it to the official stage. & when they finished at midnight their leader took me to another venue nearby to watch a selection of local acts playing different types of traditional West African music. I got back to my hotel at 3am.
On Sunday evening however I was determined to get to the main stage to see the final night of the official festival. Three different groups performed, the final one made up of Pharoah Sanders on saxophone and William Henderson on piano, accompanied by some local drummers. My knowledge of jazz is not great (I never forget raving to a colleague about some jazz drummer I’d seen at the Village Vanguard in New York many years ago – “Roy Haines!” he said, “What, THE Roy Haines?!”) but apparently this saxophonist is well-known and has played with greats such as John Coltrane. He was good. Afterwards there was an official jamming session backstage, which I only left – reluctantly – at 3.30 to get my pre-arranged taxi share back to Dakar.