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Dancing to a Dakar Beat

Dakar is a strange and fantastical city, a place of dramatic contrasts. Surrounded by a fresh and placid ocean, endowed with a wonderful tropical belt and scattered with glorious French architecture – the city of Dakar is dirty, dusty and very poor indeed.

Whilst virtually incapacitated cripples and polio victims line some street corners like vultures relying on scraps as their only survival, vendors and traders prowl the others selling fruit, socks or bootleg cassettes as their only means. Panelbeaten black and yellow taxis and marvellously conspicuous community busses congest the city centre hooting and hustling.

The desperation of the city hunches over the landscape – pointed, emaciated, unmoving, ominous and expecting. This is the Wild Wild West of Africa – fast, filthy… yet fantastical. Amongst this economic underdevelopment and this visibly disturbing imagery – there exists an elegant and beautiful underbelly, a sincere religious and moral development and a vivid and vibrant cultural development. As with any great beauty – the beauty of Senegal lies somewhat concealed, but when found – glorious.

Moments beyond the dusty and hopelessly disorientating city lies the beautiful white sands, the tranquil blue seas and stereotypical palm trees of any tourists dream. And as a result there are many who stay in the quaint, comfortable and secluded hotels on the coastline, like the Hotel Lagon 2 which has the wonderful benefit of a private beach.

This coastline is not only for tourists, it plays home to a frenetic fishing community powered by arch-age-al fishing canoes which scour the ocean for the fresh and delicious pickings. Hotels, restaurants, street-side cafeteria always have an abundance of fresh fish at a reasonable price. And any visit to the home of a friend – extravagant or modest – will always great you with fish and rice to share in a wonderful and generous display of hospitality. Meals are served in massive tin bowls placed on the floor that the entire family may eat from with their hands or with a spoon. In the local language Wolof, this pride in hospitality is called Tagaka and is consolidated by a splendid pride in dress. Turban raps are often exquisitely colourful, shoes pointed and bright and the flowing robes relaxed and ornate – an appealing trademark of Senegal even if you leave the more robust city of Dakar for the desertous regions in the North (the UNESCO heritage city of Saint Louis), the more tropical South or the historical Goree Island.

AbdulHiMaman (In God we trust) is painted on every community bus, Muslim iconography hangs from the review mirror of every taxi, paintings of the prophet Siddim Tuba scatter in graffiti, glorious mosques stand out on the landscape and most recently there is a Muslim president. Senegal is a Muslim country – 90% – yet it is Muslimism that has been diluted with the prominent beliefs of Catholicism and African traditional – creating a blend that is very African in its adaptation, but not as fundamental as the Koraan would demand, which ensures the city is reasonably moral bound and conservative on its outer shell, but not fundamental nor boring on the inside.

And in-between, amongst and throughout all of this – wherever you may travel – you will always be faced with a thick African atmosphere of tradition – a depth of culture, pride and a vibrance of riches. The popular music of the region is mbalax – the circular rhythms, syncopated drums and soaring voices Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Ismael Lo have made so universal – and it sounds out all over the region via the radios to the taxis, the street corners and the modest suburban homes. It is a sound well rooted in the community through the tradition of the griot – the singer, musician and healer, and it is a sound whose powerful drum beats represent the strength and desire of the people, whose delicate and intricate kora (traditional harp like instrument) riffs the breathtaking tradition and whose high-pitched voice the wonderful beauty of this country – Senegal.

This journey is part of ‘Dancing with the Diaspora’ – an initiative to uncover the world of African music. SAA flys to West Africa.

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