Senegal – 2012
In January 2012, Tobias Brent, Michael Osborne and myself, Olly Burton, travelled to West Africa in search of Senegalese and Gambian musical traditions. In most cases, what we found was a communal way of life that exists around music, incorporating it into every chore or activity in daily life. By filming an appeal with 20MM productions, we raised £3000 with the aim of exchanging resources for the chance to record the music found en-route.
Which way to Senegal?
January 5th is the day and Banjul is the place. After a six-hour squeeze on one of Thomas Cooks finest, we arrived in Banjul, the capital city of Gambia, tired, disorientated but over the moon: we made it! Our half-built hotel, the Carlton, which was kindly recommended by our very lucky taxi driver — with no concept of the currencies value we bought this 15 minute ride for 700 dalasi, about 14 pounds! — was located just down the road from the harbour. The boats at the harbour ferry across the peninsula to Barra every hour from 6am; our plan was to make the first crossing and from there taxi and set-plas (a retro seven-seater) our way to Dakar, Senegal. That evening, we strolled the streets of downtown Banjul finding musicians, artists and venders on almost every street corner; throughout the month, this never changed. We ate dinner in the hotel common area after searching adamantly for an alternative, but stepping out of a western country where restaurants so obviously advertise their status with blinding neon italics, makes it difficult to distinguish the difference between a cafe and a shop. We called it a night after a recap and nodded off to the sound of drummers drumming and singers singing directly below the windowsill.
At 5am the next morning we set off to catch the 6am ferry, and from there haggled and travelled our way to Dakar, with a brief stop at the border for a nice 2 hour Gambian drug enforcement search. I blamed Tobias’ dreadlocks for the unwanted attention, but appreciated his generous tobacco supply for the bribe (a please-let-us-leave bribe) and seven hours later, after enjoying the breathtaking countryside of Senegal from the back of a set-plas, we were warmly welcomed, dusty and hungry, to Dakar.
Dakar, je t’aime
Michael’s dad, back in Brighton, works with a guy called Ibrahim, brother to thirty-five year old Cheikh Deme who lives with his parents, sister and niece in Yoff, Dakar. Thanks to their kindness and hospitality we saved a lot of money and had a brilliant guide because this is where we ended up staying for four days. Cheikh and his family welcomed us with open arms and made sure we acclimatised fully before leaving the city. That evening in fact he showed us around his town, taking us to a barbecue on the beach, a bar with live traditional music and introduced us to his friends and Gabonese fiancé, Edna. Cheikh speaks perfect English with the odd American-gangster colloquialism, which was continuously useful (the English and the slang) considering the despicably modest extent of our combined French.
Day two in Senegal starts with a meeting in the apartment of experienced guide and trip-advisor Aristide, with whom we researched our route and modes of transportation more thoroughly. We didn’t expect to start work that day, but it just so happened, thanks to Cheikh’s sister, Suzanne, that we had the opportunity to record Bideew Bou Bess, a band of three brothers who are always bobbing about in the Senegalese charts. That evening, before going to Edna’s for dinner, we interviewed the brothers and recorded an acapella version of their hit song My Feeling, which they lyrically altered in the last chorus to “our feeling”,including us, strangers to them, in their telltale tune of peace.
The next three performances were two on the former slave-trade island, Gorée, and one in the ghetto of Dakar, Guadiawaye. We were unsure about going to Gorée at first: being a touristy destination, we felt it didn’t coincide with our work. However, Cheikh put his foot down and told us we were not allowed to visit Dakar without experiencing the island, which, being such an important part of history, we couldn’t argue with. We ferried from the port first thing in the morning. However, before even arriving to the world heritage sight, we met a kashaka salesman whose name is unknown to us, probably because of his mad rush to sell more kashaka’s a kashaka is a percussive instrument that consists of two gourd balls that are filled with seeds and attached to each other by a small string. He was a stubborn salesman and a gifted percussionist, so we had to record him. He stood by the pier, on the beach, swinging and bashing the four gourds around his hands with the odd intermission of rhythmically incorporating the rocks. The performance was so impressive it attracted a wide audience which meant more customers for him.
We walked around the island for a good three hours, but our first point of call was to visit the harrowing history museum, a preserved slave-house, where, not so long ago, Africans were separated by sex and age and chained against the walls by their wrists and necks. Tobias, whilst inside a room said, “I can’t lean against the walls”, which I thought summed up the experience fairly well. We left the old house when Cheikh told us he couldn’t bare it anymore and continued our exploration of the breathtakingly haunting island. The unsettling feeling in our stomachs, knowing that our ancestors were part of these horrors, remained.
As we walked the backstreets, admiring the ongoing displays of unusual art, we heard the strumming of a guitar echoing against the crumbling colonial terraces. Equipped with microphones and ready to record, we followed the music and found two artists sitting under a corrugated iron roof drinking the delicious sweet mint tea, ataya. We approached Mohammed or, as he likes to be called, Mucho and asked if we could record a song or two. He played the most beautiful lullaby called Djambolo Debére and explained the songs’ meaning: “everybody has the necessity for peace”. Later on, Cheikh mentioned that Mucho, in Wolof (the second most common language of Senegal), went on to comment that the special history of the former slave trade hub, Gorée Island, his home, reminds him each day of the importance of forgiveness and the power of peace, which is the unsurprising inspiration for his music.
Throughout the trip, Mike loved filming animals, especially goats, and as most Senegalese families believe having goats keeps evil spirits away; there are several to every street. At one point, as far as we can tell, they accepted Mike as their alpha, as after filming a quick ‘cutaway’ of a small herd, they all followed him wholeheartedly. When he stopped, they stopped. When he continued, so did they. After several strolls with the horny crowd down the narrow the streets of Gorée, we dragged Mike away from his inquisitive friends and headed back to the mainland.
That night, we met with a friend I had made through couch-surfing, Amadou. Amadou is the manager of the underground hip hop group, Beneen Squad, and the director of the company Xoslu Vision. He took us to his house in the ghetto of Dakar, Guadiawaye, that was filled with Senegalese, Canadian and Spanish people eating, drinking and making music. The three guys from Beneen Squad had a ora of importance around them, as a hip hop group should. They gave us an opinionated and intriguing interview followed by a performance that incorporated the entire room of different cultures from around the world. After the show in the tiny green and fluorescent lit room, we were invited to eat bread and rice with them from the same large bowls as is tradition in Senegal. They told us they had never been happier in their lives; they come from nothing, but came together with a common goal. To make music. Whether riches come with it or not.
Despite our preliminary anxieties about these first jobs, they gave us a sense of pride and quiet confidence that set the tone as the project progressed. The very next day, after driving out to buy microphone stands, we called Baaba Maal’s manager, Omar, who overwhelmed us with the possibility of an interview. Baaba Maal is the fula, world music, giant from Dakar who is not only one of the biggest recording artists in Senegal, but in the runnings for the whole of Africa. I am still disappointed he didn’t return our calls, but what can you do? It was a long shot and we had plenty of opportunities in store, starting with our rapper friend Double D, a neighbour of Cheikh’s, who that night, during an interview and recording, reminded us to give our “middle finger to the governors and fake politics!”.
Keen in Kedougou
Our original plan to record the indigenous music of three communities altered a fair bit after visiting Kedougou. Situated in the southeastern corner of Senegal, Kedougou is the gateway town to the Bassari country and boasts proximity to the mountainous Bedik people, the previously nomadic but recently settled Fula’s and many other ethnic groups. It is a dusty little town that attracts Spanish birders and American hikers alike. In this up-and-coming rural pocket, a tourist now has the choice of the cheap and quirky encampments, the 5 star hotels, or anything in the middle.
Although, before we could get to Kedougou, we had to find a guide. Recommended to us by friends, Yallo was our man. Our newly appointed driver picked us up in a Renault Mégane after promising an off-road vehicle; it’s a decent car, don’t get me wrong, but completely unsuited for the excursions we had in mind. Anyway, our reservations proved realistic. We scarcely travelled fifty miles from Dakar before a tyre burst and we were on the side of the road with: Yallo, a guide who couldn’t speak a word English, Spanish or any native languages; a hatchback that couldn’t endure even the main roads of Senegal, and; a mechanic that kept testing our little car by driving around the block with all out equipment on the roof-rack. We considered heading back to Dakar to change cars and guides. We considered pressing on and finding a new guide in Kedougou. If only we hadn’t spent half our transport budget. A dreary night was spent in the oily halfway town of Tambacounda. At this point, it seemed we had left our heightened sense of confidence back at the capital.
A new day! Onwards to Kedougou we thought, blaring Touré Kunda from the stereo, windows rolled down, jumping out barefoot to buy oranges and chocolates. I spent most of that morning on the phone, desperately trying to organise a way of getting around upon arrival, and, as is the common practice in Senegal, connections are mostly found through a friend-to-brother-to-cousin-to-colleague grapevine, but not necessarily in that order. Aristide, our route advisor and friend of Cheikh’s in Dakar gave us the contact details for Cheikh Diallo, a Kedougou guide who we met at one of the nicer hotels in the area for a drink and a chat.
We described the project, our realisations so far and our plans for his region. He arrived in a bou-bou (a West Africa suit) and boasted fluency in six languages, including all those of the surrounding ethnicities but no English unfortunately. At first, it was obvious he had reservations and wasn’t completely convinced concerning our intentions and finances for the musicians and their families, but, in taking a risk, we demonstrated the donated amount and his tone quickly changed. Tucked away deep in the mountains, he told us, a group of villages where most of the residents had never seen a white person existed. This two-day hike would unveil untouched and unassuming music, so we respectfully declined. The crucial aspect of the project, which was established early on, is that we’d only the document musical traditions that had already been exposed to westerners by other means.
More to come shortly….
Next up: our first experience recording traditional music in the Bedik Village, Iwol.