One of the attractions of West Africa for me is the music. It is true that many of the best musicians can be seen frequently in London, but still there is something to be said for seeing them perform on their home turf, with a crowd that understands the words and the sentiments behind those words.
In December when I was in Mali I saw Djelimady Tounkara put on a great performance at the French Cultural Centre, but I was particularly looking forward to getting back to Dakar for the Third Global Black Arts Festival. The music part of the schedule looked fantastic with well known black artists from around the world coming to do free shows in Dakar. However it must be said that the organisation (or the schedule writing) left something to be desired as few evenings delivered exactly what they promised.
First I went to see Angelique Kidjo – to be faced with some mediocre band from Martinique. With, bizarrely, Angelique Kidjo dancing at the side of the stage. Perhaps she’d lost her voice? There was no explanation, either from the compère or on the website. After that I’d planned to attend an evening of Gnawa music with Orchestre National de Barbes, until I rechecked the schedule before going and found the latter group had disappeared from it.
I faced a dilemma then with Tiken Jah Fakoly and Salif Keita scheduled for 29 December and King Sunny Ade for the 30th. All big names that I really wanted to see, but they fell in the middle of a two-week period when I had planned to be in the Gambia. Was it worth returning to Dakar for concerts that were just as likely to not happen?
Well I decided to take the chance that at least one of them would play and travelled back to Dakar on the 29th for Tiken Jah Fakoly and Salif Keita.
I got to the square early (twenty minutes before the scheduled 19:00 start) to get a good place at the front. Around 20:15 the compère appeared; “tonight we are going to welcome Youssou N’Dour … and Tiken Jah Fakoly!” he announced. I was disappointed, not just by the absence of Salif Keita but also by the addition of Youssou N’Dour to the bill. I don’t like his voice and had no interest in standing through two hours of him on stage, but worse, I know how popular he is with the Senegalese and feared how many people might turn up as word got out.
Sure enough, more and more people came, and the square got more and more packed in with people. I was being pulled to and fro by the crowd, and could also feel myself being pushed gradually forward towards the railings. I didn’t feel totally safe there, so decided to move further back. Meanwhile the compère appeared again, to remind us that we were waiting for Youssou N’Dour and Tiken Jah Fakoly – and for Salif Keita! Great news!
Finally, at 21:15, Youssou N’Dour came on. The crowd continued to build up as he sang, and I realised I was now a lone female amongst pushing, shoving Senegalese men of mostly six foot plus. I felt less and less comfortable, it was getting hot and hard to breathe, and I’d felt a couple of attempts to grope me. I tried to get out of the crowd but couldn’t push my way through – and the next thing I knew I was being half led and half carried out by someone, having apparently fainted. The kind man behind me who’d caught me as I fell, pushed his way through the crowd for me (getting abuse from some people) and also got me some water when we got out.
I found a place to sit and recover, and bought a chicken sandwich for energy – I realised that having been travelling all the day back from the Gambia I had not eaten since breakfast, no wonder I hadn't had the strength to push through the crowd.
Finally Tiken Jah Fakoly came on, and I went back into the crowd – but only to the edge, just close enough to get a view of the stage. He was superb, made it worth the effort to be there. He finished at 2am (so I’d been on my feet there for seven hours!), and there was no sign of Salif Keita afterwards – and, as with Angelique Kidjo, no explanation from anyone as to why not.
So the next night I gathered my strength – relieved to be assured by people that it was only the presence of Youssou N’Dour who could draw the enormous crowd of the night before.
The compère appeared. “Tonight”, he said, “we will welcome Idrissa Diop, 2 Faces and Vivian N’Dour!”. So no King Sunny Ade, which was very disappointing although hardly a surprise. But I was there, I had a good place at the front, so I decided to stay. Idrissa Diop wasn’t bad, but 2 Faces was awful, although clearly adored by the screaming girls around me. If you can’t sing, just keep shouting “I love you Senegal” and the crowd will be happy, it seems.
But then a big surprise – Salif Keita! I don’t like all of his recorded music but had heard he is great live, and he was. Finally then the highlight for many Senegalese that evening, Vivian N’Dour, who actually put on a superb show although I’m not a great fan of mbalax. But I still couldn’t help wondering whatever had happened to King Sunny Ade.