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Finding the soul of Senegal through its music

A trio performs poolside in Dakar, Senegal. A trio performs poolside in Dakar, Senegal.

On a steamy night in Senegal’s capital, a 64-year-old bald singer and his band were several songs into their set when they launched into “Dila Beug,” or “Loving You.” Wearing glasses and an elegant plaid tunic, Omar Pene—a West African legend—clutched the microphone and belted out a few lines in the local Wolof. A drummer unleashed a blistering solo. I could feel the room heating up: Men in tunics and women in tight, sequined dresses grooved on the dance floor, and, as an electric guitar wailed and the song reached a crescendo, even the cooks in the kitchen gave up any pretense of restraint and gathered around, rocking openly in their pressed chef’s whites.

Then one of Senegal’s biggest soccer stars, El Hadji Diouf, emerged from the dance floor, grabbed the microphone, and yelled in Wolof: “If you clap your hands, you’ll live forever!” The crowd went wild.

Like millions of Americans in the mid-’80s, I got the briefest introduction to Senegalese music thanks to British rocker Peter Gabriel. His hit “In Your Eyes” featured the pyrotechnic backing vocals of a rising Senegalese star named Youssou N’Dour. The song reached its pop-culture zenith in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film, Say Anything, when a trench coat–wearing Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) played it from a boom box he held over his head to serenade Diane Court (Ione Skye). The hit helped catapult N’Dour to worldwide acclaim. His silky voice was so expressive, in fact, that Rolling Stone declared “the history of Africa seemed locked inside it.” N’Dour led me to other West African artists and, over time, to an idea: Some of my most moving travel experiences had involved music—listening to a Moroccan oud player jam in Granada, Spain, for example, or pogoing to Manu Chao and his band in Buenos Aires, Argentina—yet I hadn’t even planned those. What if I actually set out to explore Senegal through its music?

Senegal: 'a siren song for hipsters'

Around Senegal, horse-drawn carts hug the sides of roads.

Around Senegal, horse-drawn carts hug the sides of roads.

I landed in the capital of Dakar at a seemingly promising moment. Not only is Senegal celebrating 60 years of independence from France this year, but just last year, the New York Times named Dakar one of its 52 places to visit—right up there with Doha, Qatar, and the Islands of Tahiti. The city is “a haven of peace in a region known for unrest,” the newspaper proclaimed, and “a siren song for hipsters.” And not long before that, the late globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdain heaped praise on the nation. “Even if you’ve been traveling nearly nonstop for 15 years like me, there are places that snap you out of your comfortable worldview, take your assumptions and your prejudices and turn them upside down,” he said. “They lead you to believe that maybe there is hope in this world. Senegal is one of those places.” Given the headlines around the world, I could certainly use some hope.

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Hearing music everywhere

Senegalese legend Omar Pene (far right) and his band take the stage in Dakar.

Senegalese legend Omar Pene (far right) and his band take the stage in Dakar.

Happily, I found Dakar to be buzzing with energy when I arrived. Across the sprawling metropolis of more than 3 million people, horse-drawn carts competed for space with taxis and minibuses. Markets overflowed with produce, fish, and other goods—much of which found its way into baskets balanced impressively atop women’s heads. Yet communicating was a challenge: Many locals I met spoke French and at least one indigenous tongue, but little English. And my rusty, rudimentary French was of little help. So I was relieved at midday to meet an English-speaking guide for lunch in the cosmopolitan coastal neighborhood of Almadies.

Over the national dish of rice and fish, Adja Kosse Faie told me just how central music is in Senegalese life. “You have music when you get up and when you go to bed,” she said. “You hear it everywhere.” She pulled out her phone and played YouTube videos of some of her favorite songs. And she raved about an older acoustic musician named Souleymane Faye: “He sings about friendships and life and love, and he sometimes uses proverbs in his songs,” she said. Not long after our conversation, she sent me a WhatsApp message (everyone I met, it seemed, used WhatsApp). As luck would have it, Faye was performing tonight. Would I like to go?

So that evening, we headed to a small restaurant-nightclub called Ubuntu in the upscale neighborhood of Ngor Virage. The club was nearly empty when we arrived at 9 p.m.—I was beginning to realize that nightlife in the capital doesn’t really start until about midnight. But as Adja and I chatted over dinner near framed photos of Michael Jordan and Che Guevara, people trickled in, and by the time Faye took the stage hours later, the place was hopping. The singer wore a bright vest and cap, and a long silver necklace. Accompanied by a bass player and a dreadlocked drummer on the traditional Senegalese sabar, Faye strummed a jangly electric guitar and sang in Wolof. The result was a kind of hypnotic folk rock, with Faye’s resonant voice reminding me of Marvin Gaye one moment and Van Morrison the next. After the show ended around 2 a.m., Adja and I chatted with the gregarious musician, who wistfully recalled playing years ago in New York City. In fact, Faye is one of many local stars whose music has found an enthusiastic audience overseas.

Whether or not they’re aware of it, many Americans have heard Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal. Blessed with a golden voice, Maal has not only recorded and toured with British folk rockers Mumford and Sons, but he also sang in his native Pulaar on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the 2018 hit Marvel movie Black Panther. A member of the Fulani tribe, one of West Africa’s largest ethnic groups, Maal grew up in northern Senegal in the 1950s and ’60s surrounded by music. “Our country was coming into independence,” he once said, “was opening to the rest of the world, and it was easy to see where the connection was between the traditional music we were doing and the opportunities the rest of the world was giving us.” The confluence of politics and globalization would prove to be a powerful catalyst. Both Maal and N’Dour would become global stars, but neither forgot about home. N’Dour later opened a nightclub and launched a TV network in Dakar. And from 2012 to 2013, after attempting a run for the presidency, he served as Senegal’s minister of tourism, culture, and leisure.

The more time I spent in Dakar, the more I realized just how right Adja had been: Music really was everywhere—good music, too. One evening, as a warm breeze blew off the Atlantic and the sun began to set, I relaxed by the swimming pool at the Radisson Blu hotel and watched a trio set up: a saxophonist, a drummer, and a musician with a kora—the round-bodied West African harp with 21 strings. I didn’t expect much; I’ve rarely been bowled over by poolside musicians. But as the sky turned a burnt peach and the lights of Dakar flickered on, I watched in awe as the group launched into a gorgeous, sometimes haunting set. The kora player sang in Wolof, his stirring voice rising and falling over the gentle drums, and the saxophonist riffed at just the right moments. 

Such acoustic music is often played around Senegal, but the most popular style, by far, is mbalax, a high-energy fusion of influences, from Senegalese and Cuban rhythms to soul, rock, and Congolese rumba. Much of Senegal’s music has its roots in the country’s centuries-old ethnic traditions, including mbalax, which exploded in the 1970s with the rise of groups such as Etoile de Dakar, which featured N’Dour, and Super Diamono, starring Pene. To this day, mbalax groups generally include keyboardists, drummers, electric guitarists, and a singer. In recent decades, Senegalese music has continued to evolve, with younger artists blending traditional styles with rap and hip-hop.

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Finding beauty in African music and values

Late one afternoon at the oceanfront Terrou-Bi hotel, I met up with a popular all-women trio called Safary, which formed in Dakar in 2007. Back then, the group’s three young members were defying convention, said singer Khadija Bayo. “Traditionally, girls in Africa are expected to go to school, if they’re lucky, and then find a husband and make a family,” she said. “Now, things are changing a little.” The group performs Afrobeat—a percussive blend of rap, hip-hop, Cuban son and other influences—and sings about relationships, societal expectations, and challenges of modern life. They also take pains to celebrate African culture, which they say gets short shrift in much of the international media in Senegal. Because of what they see on the Internet and TV, for example, Senegalese women think they should look like Kim Kardashian, Bayo said. “Every woman wants to look like her.”

“Really?” I said. “Even here?”

“Of course,” she said, grinning.

I shook my head. “I’m so sorry.”

Bayo and her fellow bandmates laughed. “Our idea of beauty is to keep our African values,” she said. “We don’t need to buy Versace to look beautiful. Even tonight, we’re all wearing clothes made here in Senegal.” And, in fact, the group was working on its first album devoted to traditional mbalax music.

I wanted to meet other artists fusing musical genres and soon found myself trading WhatsApp texts with Amadou Barry, a rap star better known as Duggy Tee, who replied to my first message with, “Welcome home.”

Duggy Tee picked me up in an SUV and drove me to a dusty street corner in Dakar’s Sacre Coueur neighborhood, where he often hangs out under shady trees with friends. There, he told me about his childhood in Paris and Dakar. His father was a flight attendant for the now-defunct Air Afrique, he said, and as a kid, he spent countless hours listening to his dad’s records. He loved Pink Floyd’s The Wall and often studied the lyrics on the album jacket. “That,” he said, “was one of my first English lessons.”

Goats rest on the streets of Saint-Louis, Senegal.

The roots of rap

As we talked on, a horse clopped past pulling a buggy, and Duggy Tee described taking up break dancing in his early teens after seeing American dance movies. Later, he started rapping, and, with a former rival-turned-friend, he established the group Positive Black Soul. At first, some Senegalese accused the pair of imitating American music. “We said, no, you’re fooling yourselves,” he recalled. “Rap is rooted in ancient African traditions.” The group sang about social issues and celebrated African pride, and they spent years touring the world. Duggy Tee said he was working on a solo album, but he also wanted to produce TV shows for Senegalese children. He thought kids in the country watched too many shows produced in the U.S. and France. “Why don’t we make something like The Simpsons here?” he said.

Soon it was time for lunch, and he invited me to join him and several friends. We ate rice and fish in the traditional Senegalese style, out of a large communal bowl. “Here, it’s considered selfish to eat on your own plate,” Duggy Tee said. “This way, you have to be careful to leave enough food for everyone.” I’d read that Senegal was famous for its hospitality—teranga, in local parlance. “Is this teranga?” I asked. Duggy Tee nodded. “It’s part of our culture,” he said. “It’s almost a sin not to feed people when they come to your house.”

Our time was winding down. That night, I’d have to catch a flight out of Senegal. As Duggy Tee drove me back to my hotel, we talked about the joys of travel. “You learn so much from it,” he said. “Sometimes you see people in extreme poverty, but who have a lot of dignity. And sometimes you meet people who have everything they could want, but they’re so mean. The more you travel, the more you realize how little you know.”

Of course, he was right. But after a week in Senegal, there were a few things I did know: Music can offer a kind of secret passage to the heart of a country. Also, music transcends language, and you don’t need to speak a word of Wolof or Pulaar to appreciate the essence of an artist or song. And, finally, thanks to the mysterious alchemy that can occur in a packed Dakar nightclub, for the briefest moment, music can almost make you believe you’ll live forever.

Westways features editor Jim Benning is a firm believer in the oft-quoted notion that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Yet he keeps at it.

* * * * *

Traveling beyond Dakar

If you’re going to make one overnight trip outside Dakar, head north about 200 miles to the city-island of Saint-Louis, a centuries-old trading center and UNESCO World Heritage site that’s awash in picturesque colonial architecture—and countless friendly goats. Music lovers should consider visiting during the world-class Saint-Louis Jazz Festival in later May.

For all its inspiring music, Senegal has a tragic past, and no visit to Dakar is complete without a short boat ride to Gorée Island, where the House of the Slaves, a former home and prison turned museum—and Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage site—offers a chilling glimpse into the brutal period of the slave trade.

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