Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The uncharted side of Senegal’s music world

Senegalese have an enduring proclivity for obsession. Whether it is sport, politics, music, or religion, Senegalese put their whole in whatever they get involved in. It makes it a somewhat knotty task to pinpoint a particular domineering passion for the people here, like you would soccer for Brazil, American football for the US, cricket for India, or rugby for South Africa.

But music is certainly not a diminutive part of daily life here. Every aspect of Senegalese life touches on it. In fact, one of the most fascinating thing you can find in wrestling, for instance, which appears to be doing well here, despite seemingly losing grounds in many other countries in the region, is the dancing part, where the competitor wrestler is escorted into the ring by his dancing bouncers - that part of it could get you mesmerizingly engrossed; it is really captivating. Such is the musical life of Senegalese.

And they have a lot to show for it.

For a country with a great respect for family cast system, dancing has evolved from being a cast base attribute to everyone’s domain. According to a renowned sociologist, as part of his doctoral thesis, recently at the University Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis in northern Senegal, ‘‘successes in music in Senegal have led to decastification of music.’’

‘‘52% of artists are singers from castes deemed noble, while 22% are actual griots, (traditionally regarded as poets, praise singers, and wandering musicians, considered a repository of oral tradition)’’ Dr Saliou Ndour stated.

Youssou Ndour, Baaba Maal, Ismaila Lo, Coumba Gawlo, among a host of a remarkably acclaimed line up of artists, represent Senegal’s finest.

Both Baaba Maal and Youssou Ndour have been in music for over two decades now. The duo constitutes a formidable artistic ambassadorial core, not only for their artistic ability in terms of the trade, but also the ability to have kept their role as the Senegalese they are while at the same time creating a niche for themselves at the global level.

Frederic Tendeng, a local journalist, blogger and well known political analyst, is familiar with the music scene in both Senegal and Gambia, where Youssou Ndour reportedly got part of his musical training under the Super Eagles, which dominated the music scene in the region in the early 70s. Tendeng argues that Youssou Ndour can be credited for the modern version of Mbalx, the most popular kind of Senegalese music, and he said that the man with the unofficial title of ‘King of Mbalax’ has been quick to realize the need to blend traditional instruments with modern ones. ‘‘This is also true for Baaba Maal,’’ he said, and ‘‘it is what gave the two an abiding edge over the multitude of musicians in the country.’’

Many musicians here seem caught up between an unfulfilled urge to transcend traditional style and to make a hybrid of traditional and foreign style. The result is a tragic attenuation in quality of many works, making true musical ambassadors in the region some sort of an endangered species. The problem has to do mainly with mode of approach.

There is also the social responsibility aspect, in which the two musicians have actually led by example.

‘‘Youssou Ndour is for our country, what Bob Marley is/was for Jamaica, Jimmy Hendrix and Michael Jackson for the United States. He is what Jonny Holiday is for France,’’ the acclaimed Senegalese musician was described recently in an editorial by a leading independent Dakar daily newspaper, xibar.net.

Youssou, as he is fondly referred to by many Senegalese, is not just the Bob Marley or Michael Jackson being referred to for his undisputedly captivating voice, nor is it just because of his popularity. In fact, it is mainly because of a combination of these and many more qualities, with a solemn show of responsibility to the society he believes made him what he is today. His involvement in humanitarian work is well noted given his ties to the UN and various other bodies both at home and abroad. Ndour is the owner of Senegal’s best selling newspaper, L'Observateur. He owns a popular radio station, recording studio, a music production company, a chain of night clubs, among various projects that include a TV station that only awaits signal, which is presently being held back thanks to some political interference by what is Senegal’s political dynasty, President Abdoulie Wade’s family.

Baaba Maal is no less a force of societal change. Winner of the 2008 Djembe award, Baaba Maal has a particular pan-Africanist appeal, and he makes no quietness about his wish ‘‘to restore the continent's history.’’ He is truly Senegal’s cultural ambassador both by way of the kind of message he sends and his appearance.

Unlike Youssou, Baaba Maal was born to a fishing family, representing that defying cultural line - a fisher man’s son, a musician. But today Maal’s people are surely proud of a son they really have. His annual "Festival les Blues du Fleuve" drives the message straight home.

"I think education is one of the most important gifts that we can send to the next generation, in order to pass to the next generation, because I believe that without education the next generation in Africa will not be able to understand what's going on in the whole world and how to go into it and how to exchange ideas, how to use the modern way of communicating to be part of the world. I think education is really, really a key to develop the mind and to develop the spirit and to be free for a lot of things," he was quoted saying recently, as part of an occasion that brought together a cross section of musicians from across the continent and beyond.

These two people aren’t Senegal’s only finest; there are many like them. But arguably they are unbeatable in this country.

The reality about their success story though doesn’t appear obvious to many here, who are mostly confined to ‘‘intellectual ghettos.’’

Bob Marley certainly wouldn’t have been the renowned star he was beyond the shores of Jamaica if he had not identified with the rest of the world; nor would Michael Jackson’s passing have attracted the level of attention it got globally if he had not carved himself a place in the heart of the world’s population.

This is unfortunately what many Senegalese today fail to realize. And the awareness deficiency is extremely prominent among artists, who appear resigned to competing at the local level than international. You don’t want to argue that you are aiming to go beyond Senegal when you can’t say a word in a single language that is spoken outside the region called Senegambia.

Wollof, which is spoken only within this region, is the predominant language in Senegal. It is such a perfect medium of artistic communication that it is seen as the only way of making a way into the highly competitive music industry here in this region. But although uncharted, there is general feeling that it is the only acceptable language in the music industry. While much fuss hasn’t been made openly about it, there is one or two reasons to believe that there are perturbed feelings towards this.

‘‘If you want to sing here, you have to note that here is Senegal. You must sing in Wollof,’’ a little known Senegalese drummer recently told a popular TV talk show, to a disappointingly rapturous applause from his accompanying fans.

That was widely believed to have been directed to an emerging star who sings in Bambara, a dialect popular in neighboring Mali. He is not by any means the only one who sings in a language different from Wollof; Baaba Maal sings predominantly in Pulaar. There are a few others who sings in Diola, Mandinka, etc.

There has hardly been any word of condemnation for that yet, and there probably never will be. But the underlying fact remains that this unspoken reality here holds sway the development of music in a wider section of this enormously rich Senegalese society.

Interestingly, unlike the tribalistic drummer, whose popularity doubtfully extends to a greater section of the country, the Bambara singer is a near household name in not only Senegal but as far as neighboring Gambia. And there is every reason to believe that he would do equally well in Mali. However, there are very many equally potentially talented people like him who can’t manage to make their way up there because of these largely uncharted issues about Senegal’s music world.

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