Monday, December 13, 2010

Sean Reports from Senegal's World Festival of Black Arts and Culture!

I’m sitting in my hotel room that faces the Atlantic Ocean in Dakar listening to a deejay on the radio play a whole set from Thione Seck’s fabulous new album “Diaga” that everyone here is raving about. (I will bring home a couple copies of Thione Seck’s “Diaga” to give away – watch this space). Last night I saw Thione and his “pure and tough” mbalax band Raam Daam at his spacious new down town club, Penc Me, perform before 500 or so oh so cool young Dakarois. Thione spotted me in the crowd (I was the only toubab or white person there and) he started to sing “Sean.” By the third time I realized he was singing to me I stepped forward to shake his hand. He apologized that his voice was not in great shape and I assured him he sounded fantastic to me. Now that was way cool.

Opening Ceremony

 To set the scene, I’m here in Dakar, honored to be part of a 150-person delegation of African-American leaders in scholarship, the arts, the media, politics and other fields. The occasion is the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture. There are over 16 disciplines represented, including music and dance, theater, cinema, painting, photography, design and architecture. The festival has a strong track of intellectual forums on everything from African Diaspora studies to Egyptology. This is only the third time since independence that such a monumental pan-African and Diaspora extravaganza has been mounted. The first festival was also held in Dakar back in 1966. The older folks here remember it for Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Alvin Ailey’s dance group and Langston Hughes among others. The second was the legendary 1977 gathering in Lagos.

The Grand Opening of the Festival was spectacular. It took place on Friday at the Leopold Sedar Senghor Stadium. Some 50,000 of us were treated to fireworks and a parade of Afropop stars. A wonderful kora player in the center of the soccer field chilled out the crowd with some tasty licks at the beginning.

Orchestre Baobab

Band from Martinique Night

Speech time---the presidents of Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea made their remarks. President Lula of Brazil was a no show so the Minister of Racial Relations took his place. Finally it was time for the mastermind of this Festival, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade. (Incidentally, I reported on the launch of another Wade project, the controversial Statue of the African Renaissance, last April.) At heart Wade is a pan-Africanist. His recurring themes are the importance of the African Renaissance and rallying the youth. The president spoke of his vision of creating the United States of Africa by 2017 whereby there would be free movement across borders, one currency, and all African presidents would become governors. Now that is radical! He then addressed the youth directly at the stadium, rallying them to dedicate themselves to building the African Renaissance. He led the call and response-- “Work”,“Work Again”, “Always Work”. The finale was the singing of the anthem of the African Renaissance (which Wade composed). It seemed that everyone in audience sang heartily.

Cue the fireworks. They burst, orange and bright, and everyone cheered. Out strode Ismaël Lô from the opposite side of the field singing his powerful signature song, “Jammu Africa”. Then from all sides raced about 1,000 dancers performing dramatic moves to the sky and also rushing to one corner of the field to the other to cluster in sub groups. It was hard to tell what all this meant but a Senegalese friend in our delegation told me the huge video screen behind the field showed minnows and sharks - a warning to the youth not to make the dangerous trip over the ocean to seek work in Europe. This is the fate of thousands of Senegalese every year.

Thione Seck at Penc Me Club

Next up—the royalty of Senegalese pop music, Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal. I was disappointed that Thione Seck did not get the call too. The chosen artists sang to tracks but that was the deal for everyone. Baaba, dressed in magnificent shiny brown traditional robes, strode from one side of the stadium to the other, getting everyone to sing and clap along. Youssou got a huge roar when he entered. And I was very pleased to see the crowd respond warmly to the Mahotella Queens from South Africa. What rich harmonies! At one point they just danced. They were like musical artists doing mime. I could hear so clearly the mbqanga in my head. And then the one and only Angelique Kidjo entered the field and sang a beautiful rendition of her trademark “Malaika”. What no “Mama Africa”?! Save it for later, she told me.

Back at the ranch, my friend Pierre Thiam (who owns Grand Dakar restaurant in Brooklyn) and I rallied about 15 fellow delegates to head downtown to the funky, open air club, Just 4 You Dakar, to catch the last set of Orchestra Baobab. We all spilled onto the dancefloor. A lot of fun. I chatted with the leader, Rudy Gomis afterwards and I’m glad to report that they are working on a new album that will be produced by Nick Gold for World Circuit.

We wound up the evening by walking down a long unlit street, past the home where AKON grew up and sallied into the super chic (and expensive) Golden Cup club at four in the morning. The theme was ancient Greece and back-lit panels of Greek erotica decorated the joint. I guess someone had a vision. There was a lot of romancing going on for this sharply turned out 30-something crowd, that’s for sure. We were definitely downscale by comparison but nevertheless we got on the dancefloor and boogied to hip hop, Latin, Dancehall, and more.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture to come!

-Sean Barlow

Léopold Sédar Senghor in Painting
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