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Barney Eliot - Music & Culture in Senegal

Playing the drums

Two months ago, my destination was Dakar, Senegal, transferring in Morocco, and then to continue immediately to St Louis, in the North Western corner of the country. I knew that the journey would take me into the unknown and unnerving well before the sprawling, sand strewn labyrinth of St Louis, as self-reliance and total independence many miles from home were both concepts new to me.

Arriving in Senegal

They were, however, things I could prepare for mentally. The thrill of the unimaginable was brought thunderously to life in a clearly definable moment, when the wheels of my 747 roared against the asphalt of the Airport Mohammed 5th in Casablanca. As I gazed at the static glow of the terminal in the pitch dark early hours, even with such a paltry glimpse, Morocco was suddenly no longer ‘the unexplored’. I thought to myself that, by proportion, two months in the city of St Louis would be about enough to establish a second life.

On arrival at Dakar airport at 5:00am, I was picked up as promised by a Projects Abroad member of staff, and fell immediately asleep in the back of the taxi. When I awoke, we had stopped for coffee on a stretch of the desert road lined by corrugated iron shacks and the shrubs and bushels of an otherwise arid landscape.

It was still cool, and the twilight had not yet transformed into the bright heat of the day. The massive silence, the dust cloud that hung over the road for several minutes with every car, and the eyes of curious children peering through the gaps of my embroidered sun screens at the mysterious cargo, making me feel like some ridiculous Imperial figure being ferried through the wilderness, assured me that I was a long way from south London.

In concert

Meals with my host family

I had the same feeling as I sat down for my first meal with my host family with the women sat on the floor, ‘la chef de la famille’ and I on stools, with pieces of fish thrown to our sections of the plate. The faltering French conversation was accompanied by the soundtrack of St Louis- the incessant baying of goats, the patter of distant djembe drums, the meandering tones of Koranic chanting, and of course, five times a day, the bellowing call to prayer.

I would recommend to anyone that they volunteer here; the city is lively, vibrant, and embarrassingly welcoming. People here are quick to help you and feed you, and friendships are effortlessly made.

My Music placement

My project was under the vague title of Music, and I was the first Projects Abroad volunteer to take this new opportunity. Alioune Mbow, the Manager of Mama Sadio’s backing band with whom Projects Abroad had been in touch took me under his wing and into his capable hands with such wonderful care and generosity as I could not have wished for.

The band

I was soon attending band rehearsals, learning the art of djembe with the MS percussionist, eating at chez Mama everyday and being introduced as a fully fledged band member to the packed audiences of the shows in town, at which I was performing within a couple of weeks. Under the stars and overhanging leaves in the gardens of Mikabox, La Taverne, Chez Agnes and L’institute Francaise, improvising, jamming and soloing with those who automatically became my tight knit circle of friends, I could not have been happier.

Should you decide to come and play with a band here, you will undoubtedly feel the same surreal contentment as you round off a number and swagger through the sweating, breathless crowds of soon to be familiar faces to buy a well deserved Flag, or Gazelle – perhaps the major dichotomy in Senegal- or a Fanta if you’re feeling professional.

You should however be aware of some cultural elements of the country that prevent it from being a carefree ‘beach bum’ paradise. Besides the unmasked poverty and the reactions to a white skin ranging from fascination, excitement and congenial interest to occasional antipathy, there appears to be a struggle between those trying to liberalise the country’s sometimes-oppressive society, with those austerely maintaining the current behavioural and philosophical code.

Barney Eliot

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