It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Senegalese Swing

Mar 27, 2016
Originally published on March 27, 2016 8:39 am

"Ca nous fait swinguer" — love that swing, says an aficionado at the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival as the tempo shifts from Senegalese jazz to salsa and blues. Aissatou Niang says she's enchanted and delighted with the performances.

Other festivalgoers concur, smiling. They're attending the second edition of a burgeoning jazzfest in Dakar last month that brought together musicians from Senegal, the U.S. and beyond.

The festival is the brainchild of Amadou Koly Niang, a Senegalese man who fell in love with jazz in his teens.

"When I was 14, I started to listen to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Kenny Clark — all those musicians — and I was very into it," says Niang.

As a young man, he coordinated a weekly jazz conference at the American Cultural Center and French Cultural Center in Senegal's capital Dakar.

"Every Monday we had a lecture on jazz," he says. "And when I went to the United States I just found the people that I knew before I went there."

Niang left home to study in California in 1974. There, he made friends with many American jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone, and remained in touch once he returned home to Senegal, where the seeds of the jazz festival were sown. Niang says he'd been planning to bring together a mix of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic — Africa and America — for decades.

"It was my dream. Really, I was supposed to organize this festival 40 years ago or 30 years ago," says Niang. "One day, I just said I'm surrounded with musicians, so why not start doing it now? And that's how I started the festival."

This second edition of the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival is a modest affair, compared to performances and festivals showcasing better known Senegalese music styles such as mbalax.

And Senegal's second largest city, Saint Louis, already hosts its own established, annual international jazz festival.

Yet jazz is not a musical genre one immediately associates with Senegal, though the West African country has many fans — and musicians, like crooner Adolphe Coly.

At this year's festival, Dakar's Douta Seck Cultural Centre came alive as Senegal's National Orchestra struck up on a balmy February evening in Dakar. Coly took to the stage, stopping hearts with his arresting falsetto voice, singing Joe Zavinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and Miles Davis's "All Blues," made famous by Dee Dee Bridgewater.

At one point, the unfamiliar sound of plucking and strumming filled the night air. No, not a guitar, not a kora, not a harp. The instrument — a xalam – is a small, five-stringed Senegalese lute, played at the festival by Alioune Ndiaye, jazz-style. Ndiaye swayed in his voluminous white gown, known as a boubou, as he played chords on the xalam, producing some intricate licks.

No surprise, says the organizer, Niang, smiling. "You know, jazz came from Senegal and other parts of Africa. Mbalax, every musical genre can fit into jazz," he says.

Niang says Dakar is ideally located for travel from South Africa, from South America, from North America and from Europe – to become the focal point for music – "for jazz, for African-American music and all kinds of music."

After the Senegalese musicians finished their set, guest performers from the U.S. came on stage — including singer Windy Barnes Farrell. Her curly, mauve-tinged mane and matching purple gown trimmings were blowing in the wind, like her name Windy, she joked.

"I'm feeling good. So good. You feel good?" Barnes asked the audience. "Yes. Yesssss. You feel good," she responded rhetorically reinforcing the agreement of the festivalgoers.

Barnes, who flew in from California, was on her maiden visit to Senegal and was making the most of it.

"I am in what we call the motherland here — Africa. My first time and I wondered how would I feel? I am in love with you," Barnes told the crowd.

"I am your sister, I'm your sister," she repeated. "And I don't know you, but I know you in my soul."

A mighty round of applause greeted Barnes' words as she launched into her own composition, "Club Alabam," followed by a Nina Simone number, while keeping up her banter with the audience.

Paris-based Colombian salsa singer, Nancy Murillo wowed the audience during her performance. Older women, like Aissatou Niang, danced, showing off their salsa steps and singing along.

"I like dancing. I like music. I like jazz, salsa – Cuban music. Yes. Very much. Very much," Niang said. "I have enjoyed myself very much, like everybody here, as the musicians. This music has long life. Eternal life. I can say jazz is the first music."

She says the Senegalese enjoy life and dance music. "We have it in our blood, yes," Niang concludes. " We like rhythm. Rhythm. Yes."

Equally excited by the evening of music and dance was young choreographer, Papa Sangone Vieira. He got so carried away he jumped up and danced — first in front of the stage and then up on stage, invited by singer Windy Barnes.

"The rhythm of the jazz is the same kind of freedom that we use with traditional African instruments, like drums," says Vieira.

And he uses his voice to imitate a drum, before spinning round to say, "The culture for me, from black America, it's from Africa. It's evolution and they have to come back on their roots."

Festival organizer, Amadou Koly Niang says he's planning to do it all again next year and hopes for more sponsorship, better publicity and bigger audiences at the third edition of the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Jazz and Senegal. Not the easiest association to make, yet the West African country has many jazz fans. There's an annual jazzfest in the capital, Saint Louis. And that city recently played host to the smaller Dakar Goree Jazz Festival. Here's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Dakar's Douta Seck Cultural Center comes alive as jazz musicians from Senegal's national orchestra strike up (speaking French), love that swing. There's enthusiasm from the audience as Senegalese crooner Adolphe Coly takes to the stage, stopping hearts with his arresting falsetto voice, singing Miles Davis and Dee Dee Bridgewater's "All Blues."

ADOLPHE COLY: (Singing) All blues, all shades, all hues.

QUIST-ARCTON: This is the second edition of the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival. The organizer, Amadou Koly Niang, says bringing together a mix of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, Africa and America, has been his dream for decades.

AMADOU KOLY NIANG: When I was 14, I started listening to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Kenny Clark, all those musicians. And I was very into it. And when I went to United States, I just find the people that I knew before I went there.

QUIST-ARCTON: Niang moved from Senegal to California in 1974 to study there and says he made friends with many American jazz musicians.

NIANG: And I keep on meeting people, interesting people, in jazz. Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz. So I had a good time.

QUIST-ARCTON: Niang remained in touch when he returned home to Dakar, and the seeds of the jazz festival were sown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: That perhaps unfamiliar instrument you're listening to is a xalam, a small, five-stringed Senegalese lute. Alioune Ndiaye is plucking and strumming the xalam jazz-style.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALIOUNE NDIAYE: Well, you know, jazz came from Senegal and other part of Africa. So Dakar should be the focal place for music, for jazz, for African-American music, all kind of music.

WINDY BARNES: I'm feeling so good. Do you feel good? Yeah? Do you feel good?

QUIST-ARCTON: After the Senegalese musicians finish their set, guest performers from the U.S. take to the stage, including singer Windy Barnes. Her curly, mauve-tinged mane and matching purple gown trimmings are blowing in the wind like her name, Windy, she jokes. Barnes is based in California and was making her maiden visit to Senegal.

BARNES: I am in love with you. I'm your sister. And I don't know you, but I know you in my soul. I know you in my soul.

(Singing) It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me. And I'm feeling good.

QUIST-ARCTON: Choreographer and dancer Papa Sangone Vieira got so carried away he jumped up and danced in front of the stage and then up on stage, invited by singer Windy Barnes.

PAPA SANGONE VIEIRA: Rhythm of the jazz, for me, it's like the same kind of freedom with the traditional instrument.

QUIST-ARCTON: Vieira says traditional African drumming and modern American drumbeats have much in common.

VIEIRA: (Imitating drums) The culture for me, from black America, it's from Africa. That's the same. It's about the evolution. And now they have to come back on the roots, on the roots.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: Festival organizer Amadou Koly Niang says he's planning to do it all again next year and hopes for more sponsorship, better publicity and bigger audiences at the third edition of the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival.

BARNES: One, two, one, two three. I love it being right here in Senegal.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

BARNES: (Singing) I love the East. I love the West. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.