Dakar lives after dark

Senegal has a rich culture and traditional hospitality and mbalax music- a unique brand of contemporary pop music with a vibrant twist and abstract fusion of Afro-Cuban sound, best observed at night time says CINDY DALE

The music evokes immediate and strong reaction through its unusual rhythm which is akin to some form of reggae, but it is not. Even though it is played on an electric guitar, you can’t call it rock. It is heavily influenced by salsa, but different. There’s even some sax in it, but it is not soul. But soul it certainly has as mbalax is an energetic mix of highly percussive sounds, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and driven by the relentless tribal rhythm of the African goat-skinned Sabar drums.

Senegal’s music was first brought to Western audiences in the ‘80s through the likes of Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Senegal’s home grown Youssou N’Dour; but it is only in recent years that Western tourists begun to frequent Senegal’s nightclubs. Mbalax artists tend to all follow the same route to stardom in Senegal by starting their music careers in their teens. Initially they will play at local events and progress to distinct nightclubs.

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Should their popularly grow, they’ll move on to become a house band at one of the large stages in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, then possibly record a CD for release to the local market. The soundtrack running through the pulsating city is one of mayhem. Rhythm is everywhere; from the ghetto blaster precariously balanced on a cyclist’s handlebars, to the booming bass of a passing bush taxi or the crowded Marche Sandaga (market) where vendors of handmade drum sand guitar sell their wares, to young Rastas on the beach at sunset, drumming their djembes in unison. There is no escaping it; music is the Senegalese way of life.

On the surface, Dakar is a large, crowded and shabby seaport city that seems to do its best to dissuade tourism. It’s the chaotic, raw, in-your-face and utterly exciting side to the ‘dark continent’ which chokes on exhaust fumes and is in perpetual gridlock during daylight hours. But as darkness falls, Dakar’s psyche changes.

It puts on its best club gear and turns into a city whose one and only purpose is fun. Dakar is teeming with some of the best nightclubs in Africa all driven by the hypnotic rhythm of mbalax music. The intoxicating powers of mbalax can only truly be understood at a live performance where musicians work themselves into a distorted frenzy of sweat and blurred hands, to the applause and cheers of the enthusiastic crowd, who love every moment of it.

As the locations specific bands are advertised only on Senegalese radio stations, word-of-mouth is often the only other way of finding them. Visitors can ask around at local bars and street hawkers selling music CDS. Once you’ve found a mbalax band to your liking, remember that you are there for the music; there are no quiet corners for reflection, in fact, there is little décor and mostly only dance floor. Dakar’s nightlife is wild, with every bar packed before midnight. In reality though, it’s only the band on stage that differentiates one club from another, with entry-charges ranging from $8 to $15; some including drinks.

To experience Dakar’s hippest crowd, be certain to dress for the occasion. Dance-floor chic is ruled by the Americanised slick urban-look with designer jeans, cropped T-shirts and latest hip-hop groove gear. If it is the working-man haunts you are after, head to Dakar’s Harlem, a neighbourhood called Guédiawaye.

The local nightclub there, the Le Ravin, is considered the roots of the city’s music scene. The cover charge is negligible, making it affordable to ordinary Senegalese. In the city, where the hip club-goers dress strictly for show, at Le Ravin, fluid African boubous (long gowns with elongated arm holes worn over baggy trouser), share the dance floor with tight t-shirt and even tighter jeans. Despite Senegal’s size, the country plays a key role in African arts and culture. Over the past 300 years, Senegal’s has inspired poets, novelist and artist, emerging as one of the most significant patrons of African arts.

In the centre of town, L’Institut Français, with its lush exotic gardens, offers an airy escape from the heat and the thrum of the streets. People sip cappuccinos in the cafe, students read in the library or watch films in the viewing rooms. The Galerie le Manège is part of the institute and houses exhibitions, often free of charge.

There are few tourist sites, except the Grand Mosque, but walking around, you will see the rhythms of everyday life: horse-drawn carts, open stoves serving cheap meals and makeshift stalls selling a miscellany of goods – from rugs to mobile phones. Gorée and its much quieter pace of life exists just 30 minutes offshore from Dakar. Although tourists discovered this little treasure long ago, it is still possible to wander the beautiful streets lined with colonial buildings in near solitude.

The island has several historic buildings – including the House of Slaves, which records the painful history of the slave trade -and restaurants overlooking the beach. West African markets are a riot of noise, colour and haggling, from which you emerge spiritually enriched and not financially impoverished; Dakar’s two finest are Marché Kermel and Marché des HLM. Kermel, near the port, was originally built in the late 19th century and restored in 1997.

This is where Dakarois do their food shopping. Cows are butchered in front of customers, langoustines and shrimp try to escape boxes, and fresh fruit and vegetables abound. Outside, there are stalls selling an array of authentic handmade wood carvings.

Marché HLM, a couple of kilometres away in Grand Dakar, specialises in fabric – the more extravagantly colourful the better, in keeping with the local fashion. Fabric ranges from finest Malian waxed and beaten cloth imported from Bamako through to Mauritanian Arabic-style patterns. For a man’s suit, you need foursix metres, for women’s dresses four metres. The best material costs up to £80 for six metres. It pays to search for a bargain.

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