City of Rhythm


Inside a dingy underground corridor within the fortifications of the old slave-trading port of Gorée Island the only noise is a rusty chain rattling against a steel door. In the dim light, Fallou Kandji works a key into a heavy padlock and struggles with it until he hears a dull click. At the sound the young man, his short dreads hidden underneath a red woolen beret, flashes a magician’s smile before unlooping the chain and pushing the creaking door ajar. Heat rushes out like he’s just opened an oven. Inside is a small, low-ceilinged room with yellow paint flaking off the walls. Arranged around as if it were a stage are a full drumkit, a keyboard, stacks of speakers and a pair of kora – the West African string instruments which paved the way for acoustic guitars and the Delta blues. One wall is plastered with old gig posters, peeling in the sticky damp. This secret subterranean hideaway is the studio and rehearsal space of Civil Society, a reggae band who have brought music to a place that once reverberated only with the echoes of its horrifying past.

Gorée Island, sitting a little over a mile out from Dakar’s sheltered harbour, was Senegal’s most notorious slave port in the late 1700s. Now visitors come to reflect on the past at the House of Slaves, a museum and memorial containing the ‘Door of No Return’, an infamous passageway through which it is estimated many thousands of enslaved people were transported to the Americas. When President Obama visited the island in 2013 he took a moment to stand in the doorway and gaze out to sea. Later, he would say that the visit helped him ‘fully appreciate the magnitude of the slave trade’.

These days the island has been reclaimed as a place of life and hope. Many of those who live here are artists. As well as playing guitar with Civil Society, Fallou is also a painter. As he leads me along nameless alleys to the yard where he keeps his battered acoustic and displays his work we pass street vendors selling baguettes and kids playing football. We wave away the attention of his fellow artists loudly hawking their paintings, jewellery and ornate sculptures. They don’t seem too discouraged. They’ll get us on the way back.

‘Here on Gorée Island, people live through culture,’ explains Fallou as we walk. ‘Once people were brought here by slavery. Now people from many different cultures pass through. People were deported from here to America, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil… anywhere. When they come here now, I see only humans. When I look at you, I see myself. That’s what I try to show in my art, and in my music.’

We pass by the House of Slaves, and stop for a moment in front of a statue depicting a woman with her arms around a man as he breaks his chains and raises his fists in triumph. The newly freed pair are both standing on the West African drum known as a djembe.

‘This is the symbol,’ points out Fallou. ‘They are using their power to get their liberty. It represents what people believe in here on Gorée Island: that melody and harmony will pass around the world through communication.’

The djembe has been at the heart of West African music for many centuries. To learn more about the significance of this special drum, I take a ferry back to the mainland to visit the master drummaker and teacher Ibou Sene. He gives lessons on how to build and play the djembe at his small workshop, tucked away in the gardens behind the Cultural Centre in Derkle, near the centre of Dakar. As my taxi moves slowly through the gridlocked traffic the air is thick with fine Sahara dust. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the yellowy light, through which I see herds of white sheep gathered next to the highway. Their bleating mixes with engine noises and honking horns to create the city’s cacophony. The car in front has the name ‘Youssou N’Dour’ – one of Senegal’s most famous singers – painted across its spoiler. By the side of the road, three small boys sit back to back in a circle drumming with their hands on the bottoms of upturned petrol canisters.

‘The drum is very important here,’ explains Ibou when I arrive. We sit on plastic garden chairs outside his workshop, under the shade of a baobab tree, and he patiently shows me the subtle changes in hand shape and positioning which produce traditional djembe drum patterns. ‘These were the cell phones of my parents’ generation,’ he says. ‘If you heard a certain rhythm being played by people walking around the neighbourhood then you would know right away what had happened.’

These rhythms, which travelled across the sea from Senegal onboard slave ships, would go on to shape whole musical genres the world over. One man who understands how that happened better than most is Dread Amala, a reggae DJ and musical historian who for over 30 years has run Dakar’s best record stall, the Bufalo Soldier Music Shop. A tiny shack on a particularly dusty corner next to a petrol station at the Jet d’eau roundabout, from the outside it doesn’t look like the most promising place to find an exhaustive collection of world music. However, when I step inside I find the tiny space is piled high with vinyl records containing music from almost every country in Africa, as well as French and Cuban records, jazz, blues, rock and lots and lots of reggae. Reggae is Dread Amala’s passion, so it’s fitting that in the taxi on my way to meet him the radio is playing the South African artist Lucky Dube’s song ‘Serious Reggae Business’. I nod my head as he sings: ‘Some say it came from Jamaica / Some say it came from Africa…’.

Touching a needle down onto a reggae record from his own collection, Dread Amala sets about explaining how the music he loves originated in this part of the world. ‘In slave culture you had drumming from Senegal, Mali and Guinea,’ he says. ‘That’s why in reggae music, drumming is also very important. The origin of all international music: the blues, jazz, soul, reggae is Africa. It all came from here.’

It would be easy to lose hours rummaging through Dread Amala’s crates, but to really experience and understand the power of Senegalese music I’m going to have to see it live for myself. With this in mind I head downtown to Play Club, in the basement of the Hotel Al Afifa, a slightly seedy looking joint that appears largely unchanged since the swinging 70s. There are circular mirrors on the walls behind the bar and a well-dressed bartender shaking a daquiri in time to the music. Tonight’s main attraction, Woz Kaly, doesn’t come on until just after 1am. The set starts slow – showcasing the power of his voice singing in his native Wolof – before building to a hip-shaking intensity which has the crowded room dancing and singing along. It’s not quite like anything I’ve heard anywhere else in the world.

As it turns out, Dakar is running a surplus of spectacular live performers. After seeing Woz Kaly in action I sit down with local pop sensation Adiouza. Having been lucky enough to catch her own live show as well I know it’s filled with enough crowd-pleasing glamour and effortless dance moves to make her Senegal’s answer to Beyoncé. She modestly laughs off the comparison. ‘Beyoncé is a great singer,’ she says. ‘I listen to her songs, and other American singers as well, but my real inspiration is traditional African roots musicians and singers. In my music you can hear traditional and modern music coming together.’

Having released her first single in 2008, Adiouza has had a front row seat to see how in the last decade Dakar’s music scene has broaded its horizons beyond just the local style of pop, known as mbalax. ‘Dakar is the centre of Senegalese music and so there are a lot of different artists in different styles here,’ she says. ‘You can find artists who do reggae, hip-hop and Cuban music, but me I mix every type of music to find my own style.’

While Adiouza is happily mainstream, she keeps her ear close to the ground and is excited by the new sounds she’s heard around the city. ‘Right now mbalax is the most popular style in Senegal, but the young artists are inspired to do something different,’ she says. ‘There is a new style of music, Wolof beat, which is inspired by Nigerian music. Young people are trying to make modern-sounding music that they can export.’

To get a taste of what this new generation is listening to I get a taxi across town to Espace Vema, a nightclub beloved of Dakar’s cosmopolitan youth. It’s located in a once neglected industrial building next to the docks, and after a couple of strong drinks you could easily believe that you’d suddenly been beamed up and teleported to Brooklyn or one of the trendier parts of east London. Entering past a gaggle of smokers and a pair of burly bouncers, inside the white-walled warehouse space has exposed ducts overhead and sticky floors underfoot.

I’ve been invited here by Jahseen, one of the city’s most forward-thinking young artists. After growing up in Dakar she spent time living in Europe but was soon drawn home by the vibrancy that she could never quite find anywhere else. ‘This city is like the Silicon Valley of Africa,’ she says. ‘If you look around you’ll see that everybody is here: French, American, Chinese, Sri Lankan. I think you can feel that everybody is at ease here. Everybody works and everything works, you just have to wake up and do it’

Sure enough tonight the dancefloor is filled with people from every corner of the earth drinking, dancing and laughing together as the DJs seamlessly blend African and Western pop. It is late by the time we stumble out into the night, and the sound of the day’s relentless traffic has finally died away. All that’s left is the heartbeat of the city itself. It sounds like a drum.

Published in Lonely Planet Traveller, March 2019.