Marching in to St. Louis Jazz

Senegal’s music scene expanded another notch with the 18th annual jazz festival in St. Louis this past weekend.  This  town up north, just a tad below the Mauritanian border and spread over an island in the mouth of the Senegal River, is a colonial gem (to some; others see it as remnants of the colonial past, best suited for turning one’s back on). We combined the grit of urbanity in the evening and early wee hours with sleeping and daytime lounging by the water in the peaceful Langue de Barbarie National Park, at the campement we visited during our Tabaski trip last November.  Three families in total: 5 adults and 5 teens and pre-teens, enjoying the last three-day weekend in the school calendar before final exams and the summer scattering take hold.

While many bands played at local bars and restaurants, the Quai des Arts main stage presented a varied program each weekend night.  On Saturday, big band music started off the evening, with a technically impressive German youth band, the Jugend Jazz Orchester Nordrhein Westfalen.  Perhaps I’ve been here too long, but to hear instruments that produce such clear, beautiful tones and instrumentalists who are so skilled (and at such a young age) was very welcome.  The second band, the Sylvain Beuf Quartet, was led by a saxophonist who composed most of the music, backed up by piano, bass, and drums.  This concert was classic free jazz, and was very interesting at the outset.  But whether it was the heat or the late hour or the repetitive pattern (begin with the sax, cede the lead to each member in turn, return to the sax to close), I was ready for its conclusion between midnight and one.

When we exited the venue, we were met full force with a religious gathering across the street called by one of the Muslim brotherhoods (a gamul).  Busloads of worshippers were still arriving at 2am, and the streets were a festive hodgepodge of people gabbing, food vendors and stuff sellers hawking, diesel fumes spewing, the colorful landscape of everyone’s Saturday night finest, and the omnipresent backdrop of the imam’s chanting.  We went in search of other music venues around town, but instead followed our noses to a local bread baker selling hot, crusty baguettes out a small window in a cement wall.  We would have walked right past the unassuming boulangerie, but for the arresting smell.  En principe we were buying bread for tomorrow’s picnic lunch.  Good thing we started out with 6 loaves, because only 4 made it home alive.

Preparing to paddle: from L to R, Stefan, Omar, Matthew, Cecile (behind Matthew), Ada

The next day Brian and I outslept the crowd, including the teenagers!  Then it was a voyage across the river in a flotilla of kayaks and canoe to the actual spit of land from which the Langue de Barbarie takes its name.  Sun, sand, and raucous waves awaited.  Showered and dressed for the evening, we first sampled some of the expos celebrating both the 350th anniversary of St. Louis’s founding and the Biennale of Contemporary African Art/Dak’Art (see next post), which had moved beyond Dakar’s borders for the first time.

Arriving late from a riverside dinner, we caught the last two pieces performed by the African Jazz Roots Quintet, a collection of artists united expressly for this festival. Ablaye Cissoko is probably Senegal’s most famous kora player and was a delight to hear and see.  His duet with floutist Ousmane Ba was haunting, but very abstract, and I feared losing the kids before the concert really kicked off.  Fortunately, the next band, the Jerry Gonzalez Sextet livened things up with salsa style music.  Fueled by the pulsing congas and mellow trumpet playing of the Gonzalez (not simultaneously), one could see many a person chair dancing for that hour. Pharoah Sanders batted clean-up, kicking up his 70-year-old heels (literally!) during his 1 – 2am time slot while dancing to the local drummers performing with his band.  His sax playing is still plenty smooth, although some in our party thought it would have been nice to hear it more.  I was bowled over by his voice, on the few songs where he crooned (vs. shouted out a la Louis Armstrong):  deep, smooth, mellifluous, very young!   The Gonzalez sextet pianist, “Caramelo” Javier Gutierrez Masso, and bassist, Alain Perez, had been particularly stunning to listen to.  And we, the few (3), the mighty, sleep-deprived souls who lasted till the post-concert improv session at the neighboring after hours club, were treated to hearing them again, this time with the guitarist who had somewhat quietly backed up Sanders.  Lots of cigarette haze and beer-induced mating rituals, but very fun to watch and listen to the music spontaneously erupt.  And of course, our final night of the jazz festival was completed by a second run to the boulangerie, where the bread was so fresh that we could barely palm it, it was so hot at first.

Having our ice cream and eating it too!

Although we missed the group sponsored by the U.S., Freddie Bryant and Kaleidoscope , because they kicked off the festival on Thursday night, we were lucky to hear them at a private concert in Ambassador Bernicat’s living room on Tuesday night.  What a treat.

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