Friday, November 16, 2007

Sabar Solo in Pikine, Dakar, Senegal

While I was in Senegal, I solo-ed during three sabar parties and danced at concerts and clubs, but my all time BIG MOMENT was at a sabar in Pikine. My young male friends had taken me to a huge soccer match at the stadium the day before to see their team from Pikine play in the championship. Pikine is a poor area of Dakar, so it was a big deal that their team had made it so far. We stood in the drum section where they played their behinds off and lead the crowd behind us in soccer anthems. When their team won 5 – 0, the whole crowd, dressed in their team's green and yellow, just went crazy.

Two days later, they took me to a big sabar party to celebrate their team's victory. Since we got there relatively early, I got to watch the whole evening unfold, from putting up the stage to setting up the sound sytem. For the first 90 minutes, a sea of children danced to a string of Senegalese pop hits, which was wonderful to watch. They already had the dances DOWN!

Most sabars are family / neighborhood affairs with about 60 people in attendance, but this one was massive. They'd cordoned off an entire block and both sidewalks were thick with onlookers. When the sabar drumming got started, my friend Abdullai, said, "You're going to dance, right?" Looking around at the thousands of people, I thought, "Me? Dance? Here? NOW?" When I told him I hadn't brought a lappa (skirt) to wear, he promptly brought his aunt over with a skirt which she wrapped around my waist.

The drumming was really firey now and my heart was pounding, but I just jumped out into the open space. The minute I appeared, the crowd started screaming (there was not a single other white person there). I ran down to the drummers and did a blazing solo, powered by joy and adrenaline, before running back into the crowd. However, the minute I'd finished, it was pandemonium. The drummers left their drums and were pumping their fists in the air, the space in the middle collapsed and people were shrieking. Abdullai found me and grabbed me by the wrist, saying, "The people up at the other end want to see you! They couldn't see you because you were down by the drummers! Come with me!"

pikine - about to kick / flying small
(This sabar in Pikine was 2 nights later and small by comparison!)

When the crowd reformed and the drummers took their places again, Abdullai dragged me out to the middle of the block, where I took a stand with my legs wide apart, just bouncing on my toes like a boxer. The crowd screamed again, as this is a classic Senegalese sabar posture … just taking my time and letting the anticipation build. A woman from the mobile company called Orange came over and ceremoniously crowned me by putting a big promo T-shirt with Orange on it over my head. The drummers were waving the dancers out of the way as if to say, "Move! We want to drum for the Toubab!"

I did a huge move as if to start something big, but just stopped. More screaming. Then did small funny step on my toes, which everyone loved, before launching into solo 2. During my solo, the lead drummer left his drum and came running up the block toward me. When he reached me, I did a big kick to the left and then right move before doing a classic chebu djen back that everyone knew. It ended with both of our hips meeting in the middle … as Fatou NDiaye would say, a combo of sex and comedy … and the crowd went completely wild.

pikine - in the air, about to land

When the sabar section ended, I spent the balance of the evening dancing with everyone, kids, old ladies, young men, everyone. I didn't sleep that night, just reliving how amazing it had all been. But one thing I remembered really clearly was how I felt in that moment of waiting on my toes to do solo 2. Everything was in slow motion and I thought, "Wow, for 10 years, I have dreamed of this moment … that one day I would be in Senegal at a sabar and I'd do a great solo." It was a palpable feeling of manifestation … that such dreams really do come true … and made me feel like I can do anything!


Dakar, Senegaaaal!!!!

I flew from Seville to Madrid, then got a connecting flight to Dakar. Already in the waiting hall, it was so great to see all the Senegalese. I wondered what business they were doing in Spain? After looking down at Dakar's star shape from the sky, we landed at 11pm. Once through customs, a friend's husband met me, took my bags, and navigated our way through the churning mass of people offering to change money, drive us, or sell us something.

For two weeks, I stayed with a family in Thiaroye Sur Mer. That way, not only would I have chaperones and home cooked food, but their home was relatively close to Djibril NDiaye Rose's house, who I was scheduled to collaborate with.

The family was lovely. The mother lived in a home on the beach where we'd convene to eat lunch (usually chebu djen) and dinner (often very late). I had my own room in a big clean house five minutes away with three of her 5 sons … all of them drummers. They soon became my friends and allies, taking me out to all kinds of events in exchange for me paying for taxis and tickets.

Working with Djibril NDiaye Rose was a pure pleasure. A very gifted, organized, professional, kind, merry, hospitable person, he lives in a house near the beach with his beautiful wife and 6 gorgeous children. The first day we met, his six drummers launched with total gusto into the piece that they'd created to collaborate with me. Sitting there, with this incredible music going right into every pore, I almost started crying, it was so beautiful. I took the music home that night and wrote two verses and a chorus over my section the next morning at dawn, being careful to make sure that the melody wove intricately into the drum parts and was in dialogue with the beautiful tama melody.

The next day, I was delighted to find that they loved what I had written. Djibril then announced that their dancer, Mame Cheikh, would teach me the nyare goron choreography for the video and I could feel the drummers trying not to roll their eyes. His wife and a friend also watched by the sidelines. Very satisfying to see their surprise when I nailed the steps really quickly!!

Over and over again, I found that my ability to dance became an instant way to connect with people there. Clusters of children would gather 'round me, showing me steps and shrieking with delight when I could accurately imitate their moves. In the clubs, I soon had countless tutorials from seasoned dancers surprised to see I had a good repertoire of steps and feel for the rhythms. At people's homes, without speaking Wolof, my dancing would always make people smile and laugh. My big moment came during a sabar solo at a sabar in Pikine, but will write about that in a separate blog!

The other highlights while I was there were recording the single with Djibril and his drummers (steaming hot studio, but such fun!), making the video (SO much laughter!), seeing performances by DouDou NDiaye Rose, Coumba Gawlo, and Viviane, going to two other excellent sabar parties (drummer Pape Seck BLEW MY MIND, his drummers were so awesome), going to a soiree Senegalese, and tracking down my husband's uncle-in-law in central Dakar.

I really had an incredible couple of weeks and got an unnatural amount accomplished. Despite Dakar's heat, terrible air, mosquitos, and relentless filth, the Senegalese are staggeringly beautiful, peaceful, spiritual, and full of life and joy. Every bus and taxi is covered with spiritual sayings and plastered with pictures of their spiritual leaders. Every greeting seems to include the word Peace. On the way to the airport, when our taxi scraped the side of another car, all the men calmly got out of the two cars, greeted one another, and shook hands before discussing the accident. Then shook hands again, got into their cars and drove off.

The flights home totaled 36 hours of traveling, getting on and off planes and going through customs, but it was worth it. Arriving home, it was brilliant to see my husband and kids, who I'd missed loads. Felt great to have a very long and very hot bath. It took me two days to clean the house and two solid hours of combing our daughter's hair to pull it back from the brink of dread-lock-hood! Now trying to catch up. I had 750 new emails waiting for me ... aaaaah!

I hope I get to go back … soon!!!



The WOMEX conference in Seville, Spain is an annual four day convention where world music artists and industry types meet, mix, and network. There are showcases and workshops and booths. For ages, I had heard about WOMEX, so this year I just went for it (see story below) and it was truly amazing.

First off, I met a handful of WOMEX attendees on the plane from London to Seville. Lots of jolly introductions and energy. Once there, we all disappeared into taxis to our respective hotels. I shared a room with Luisa Cottifogli, a brilliant Italian singer who was one of my best friends while studying opera in Italy 23 years ago, and we had a super merry reunion. Her sense of humor was identical to mine, so we literally laughed for four solid days. In between our hysterics, I made about 100 great new contacts, saw scores of brilliant concerts, wandered around Seville (so beautiful!) and wondered if the Spanish knew anything about vegetables? Their diet seems to consist mainly of ham, bread, mayonnaise, wine, potatoes, and meat.

Of the showcases, I loved Balkan Beat Box, the Finnish foursome playing harmonica, and Vieux Farka Toure (again), missed Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 (just too tired), loved the mix of flamenco and qwwaali singing, and Julie Fowlis was lovely. Sitting or standing in the audience, I could see myself up there at the big Pavilion with a huge band including Senegalese dancers and drummers or at the Teatro Lope de Vega with a more intimate show. Just have to figure out HOW!

Made some wonderful contacts and friends at the convention, on the bus TO the convention, at the parties AFTER the convention. Plus, I ended up meeting people from LA who I'd not yet had a chance to know! Very inspiring to see everyone so devoted to world music (a term many of them can't stand, but will use it for now!). Andy Palacio's last concert was excellent and the speeches that both he and his producer delivered were so inspiring, I got very misty eyed. Can't wait to return next year!!