Simmering Senegal Goes Full Boil into the Wee Hours at Stade de l’Amitié

Thus far the famed music scene in Dakar has been on a low simmer for me.  The specter of carving out time to take a nap so that I can go out at midnight and return as the sun rises, then crash or pull an all-nighter at age 48, has proved to be a mirage on my Fulbright horizon.  Thanks to Scarlett, we know we can always think about those things tomorrow.

Ah, but tomorrow came.  Yesterday, er, well today!

Youssou N’Dour, Baba Maal, and Omar Pène forced the plunge, by headlining a concert for Peace, Tolerance, and Understanding at the big football stadium named for Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sedar Senghor.  Les Concerts pour la Paix, la Tolérance et l’Entente took place in New York, Washington, and Dakar during the past two months, with the Dakar spectacle co-sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Senegal’s Ministry of Culture.  Concerts on both sides of the pond sought to promote cultural diversity and understanding.  As described in local media:

Les concerts pour la Paix, la Tolérance et l’Entente qui ont eu lieu aux Etats-Unis ont permis d’exposer et de faire découvrir des talents établis et surtout de jeunes stars à un public Sénégalais et Américain confondu.  De retour à Dakar, ces artistes, Positive Black Soul, Abdou Guite Seck, Titi et Ma Sane, vont partager cette expérience Américaine avec la jeunesse sénégalaise et rejoindre une panoplie d’artistes légendaires tels que Youssou N’dour, Baba Maal et Omar Pene, ainsi que d’autres stars montantes comme Pape Diouf, Mame Balla et Abdou Thioubalou pour un concert unique au stade de l’Amitié (Stade). Ce beau panache d’artistes se mobilise pour promouvoir la Paix, la Tolérance et l’Entente et encourager la jeunesse à s’ouvrir à la force que représente la diversité culturelle qui existe au Sénégal mais aussi aux Etats-Unis et de par le monde, à travers la musique, langage universel du cœur des hommes.

What a scene!  The stadium probably holds some 60,000 people and by the time we arrived a few bands in, around 9pm, it was 2/3 full.  We were shepherded into the VIP section, that coveted spot in African football stadiums where a concrete overhang protects you from rain (which we haven’t felt in Senegal since last October) and the metal barrier manned (literally) by beefy private security guards protects you from the crush of the crowd.  The music was all Senegalese but varied with each performer:  pure mbalax, reggae, pop, hip-hop, and rap.  So did the audience’s response:  hand clapping and waving, line dancing on the field and in the stands (the visual equivalent to the wave at U.S. baseball stadiums), and lots of movement of hips, feet, and almost every other body part you can imagine.  Although there were many more whose names I didn’t catch, three “young” performers caught my attention:  Positive Black Soul, a rap duo of Amadou Barry, alias Doug E. Tee, et Didier J. Awadi, dit DJ Awadi; Abdou Guite Seck, whose voice reminded me of Baba Maal and face made me think of N’Dour; and Titi (the lone female I saw perform that night).

Sometime around midnight, the cocktail finger foods eaten earlier in the evening had worn off, so Brian and I went to the VIP lounge in search of vittles.  There we found sweet tea, three very sweet young men holding down the over-air conditioned fort, and empty boxes of food.  On to Plan B.  A young woman, bringing in a new jug of hot coffee, took charge.  Vous avez bien mangé? she asked courteously.  No, we explained, we missed the food.  Suivez-moi, she commanded.  And so we did.  Down the stairs, through the tunnel, out on to the field, behind the stage, and into an area reserved for the performers.  Patientez un moment, s’il vous plaît, she advised. And so we did.  We watched a flat screen t.v. projecting Senegalese music videos on the local equivalent of MTV.

Our new friend, Ibrahim, is in the white pants at right.

We also watched VIPs (very important performers) move about with entourages and body guards (I recognized the rap duo later on stage).  And we met a curious and self-assured ten-year old dancer, who introduced himself as Ibrahim.  In the course of the conversation, we learned that this young man is from Kaolack, dances with his older brother in a troupe (and saw some of his moves including Michael Jackson imitations), and wants to come stay with us in the U.S.!

Baba Maal, in the long white coat atop blue boubou.

Returning to the VIP section, we watched the “senior” performers, especially N’Dour and Maal, work the crowd.  When 56-year-old Baba Maal came on stage, in what I now think of as his Michael Jackson homage look, his distinctive voice harmonizing with the djembe brought the crowd to its feet – at 2 in the morning, no easy feat (bad pun intended). By the time he took off his Western-looking high-sheen long coat and joined his dancers, hands and feet on the stage, the crowd went wild. His message, in song and in words between songs, was clear and repetitive:  Africa is the future and all the young people in the crowd need to be a part of solving its endemic poverty.

Youssou N'Dour, center stage, in white top.

After waiting a full half hour for the roadies to set up the stage, 50-year-old N’Dour’s arrival at almost 4am started off slowly. Literally, with reggae beat numbers that physically underscored the concert’s themes of peace and tolerance.  In disappointment we watched as waves of young people left the football field with each successive song.  But then, about a half hour in, he played his trademark mbalax tune, Japoulo (Undecided), and the effect was electric:  everybody, even we old farts in the VIP section, were dancing and singing and clapping and waving.  This continued on until almost 5am.

And then, with the last notes of his last song, everyone scattered.  No applause.  No encores.  No flaming lighters or cell phones.  We’d been kind of dreading getting out of the stadium, finding a taxi, fighting the crowds.  Instead we hopped into a waiting taxi and were climbing the four flights to our apartment as the imam at the neighboring mosque woke his followers with the first call to prayer.  Now, after sleeping till noon and then spending the day off (a RCH) on the Ile de N’gor walking on the beach, eating brochettes and drinking beer at a café, and playing cards  (the Momster rules at Phase 10 these days!), I can imagine doing this again.  Ah, there’s always tomorrow.

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