I fell in love with Dakar and with the Senegalese people and their culture from the first moment I set foot there. There is something truly magical about this city that has pulled me back again and again. Now, through WOW, I have many good friends in Dakar and I never miss an opportunity to visit them.
Some of the highlights I recommend are the music, the art and Senegalese wrestling, a colorful spectacle you’ll never forget.
Music: Youssou N’Dour is Senegal’s Gift to the World
Youssou N’dour is a Senegalese singer, songwriter, composer, percussionist and occasional actor. Rolling Stone described him as, in Senegal and much of Africa, “perhaps the most famous singer alive.” Youssou is as close to an international megastar as African musicians get, having earned first a massive fan base in his home of Senegal and then a worldwide following on the heels of his work with Peter Gabriel and others. His music (termed mbalax, after the Wolof word for rhythm) incorporates the traditions of West Africa within a truly global sound, often drawing from the Afro-Cuban continnuum. But in the end it’s N’Dour’s voice that stands out and takes center stage during his performances, impossibly catchy and melodic all the way.
In the West, Youssou has collaborated with musicians Peter Gabriel, Axelle Red, Sting, Alan Stivell, Bran Van 3000, Neneh Cherry, Wyclef Jean, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Branford Marsalis, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Dido and others. He is the first African Grammy winner.
In Senegal, Youssou is a powerful cultural icon actively involved in social issues. In fact, Youssou is also our 1st Honorary Chairman for WOW for Africa and it has been a pleasure to personally get to know him and his music.
1985, he organized a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela. He was a featured performer in the 1988 worldwide Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour collaborating with Lou Reed to contribute a version of the Peter Gabriel song Biko, which was produced by Richard James Burgess and featured on the Amnesty International benefit album The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball. He has also worked with the United Nations and UNICEF and he started Project Joko to open internet cafés in Africa and to connect Senegalese communities around the world. He performed at three of the Live 8 concerts.
In 2006, N’Dour played the African-British abolitionist Olaudah Equiano in the movie Amazing Grace, which chronicles the efforts of William Wilberforce to end slavery in the British Empire.
He covered John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” for the 2007 CD Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur. He also featured in a joint Spain-Senegal ad campaign against illegal immigrants.
Since 2007 he is also council member of the World Future Council.
In 2009 N’Dour released his song “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)” under Creative Commons license to help IntraHealth International in their IntraHealth Open campaign to bring open source health applications to Africa.
Youssou is the subject of the award-winning films Return to Goree directed by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud and Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, which were released theatrically around the world. The latter is an excellent music-driven documentary that reveals one man’s power to inspire global change.
A couple of my favorite songs are “Shaking the Tree”; “Wake Up Africa Calling”; and the Egypt album which brings his sacred music to the world; I was lucky enough to be there when Youssou debuted the Egypt album at the Fes Sacred Music Festival. Artists from around the world flock to Fez, Morocco’s spiritual capital every June. The top music artists from Middle Eastern and Western religious communities gather for a week of concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and intellectual and artistic exchanges. Performances have included the Sufi Whirling Dervishes of Turkey, Berber trance music, Arab-Andalusian music, Hindustani chants, Celtic sacred music, Christian Gospel, flamenco, and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Morocco, with French classical musicians always proving very popular. There have also been Sufi artists from India and Pakistan, Japanese drumming bands and a group of vocalists from Mali.
Dak’Art is a Bright Jewel on the African Landscape
While in Senegal, I have attended the memorable and eye-catching contemporary Pan-African art exhibit, Dak’Art. The art is amazing, spiritual, and culturally significant. There is a traveling exhibit, “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” which is in Chicago this summer. Started in Senegal, the goals of Dak’Art are to: support and encourage creativity, promotion, diffusion, artistic training and art education in Africa; promote the African artists internationally; encourage the integration of the contemporary African Art into the international Art market, and contribute to the development of art criticism in Africa and publications on art and contemporary African artists.
Here are some of my favorites. The range and emotion of these works are truly captivating.
Senegalese Wrestling is an Iconic Sport
“DAKAR, Senegal — It is early evening in West Africa, and two young men in loincloths cover themselves in fine red dust and prepare to do battle. But this is no rural village scene. Television cameras follow the fighters’ every move, and outside the stadium the streets heave with the traffic of one of the region’s most modern capitals. Traditional wrestling, practiced for centuries in the Senegalese countryside, has evolved into a modern sports phenomenon.” So starts out an excellent piece by Hilary Heuler in the Washington Post.
These are the most exciting matches I’ve ever watched. So much tradition. So much is riding on the outcome. The winner wins enough money to feed his entire village for a year. The loser is devastated.”