Daara J: The real old school

Winners of a Radio 3 award, Senegal's top hip-hop trio Daara J are back on the road. Tim Cooper meets them in Paris

Go on, admit it: you thought that rap music was born in the black ghettos of the Bronx, in 1980s New York. But, as Senegal's top hip-hop trio reveal, it has been around for centuries - and it comes from their homeland. "We call it tasso," explains Faada Freddy, singer with Daara J, leading exponents of the modern-day hip-hop hybrid dubbed Sene-rap. "And it has been around since before the days of slavery. Slaves took it to America when they were transported there on ships."

An offshoot of West Africa's tradition of storytelling musicians called Griots, tasso is the ancestor of today's rap. "It is rhythmic poetry handed down from fathers to sons, and it usually expresses social concerns," adds Freddy, whose own group does just that, blending sharp social comment with an intoxicating brew of beats overlaid with his country's traditional music. "Historically, people in Senegal would use tasso to talk about their environment, their living conditions, the situation of the country and their hopes for the future."

Following in their footsteps, Dakar's huge hip-hop community - the capital boasts an estimated 6,000 rap collectives - had a huge influence on the country's last election, using their music to back the successful anti-corruption candidate. In Senegal, rap is used not to brag of wealth, power and sexual prowess, but to pass on positive messages about all sorts of everyday issues, from taking care of the elderly to picking up litter.

"Artists are very deep in Africa," says Freddy. "People want them to be deep. We are very attached to poetry and spirituality and the values of the human being." None more so than Daara J, whose recent recognition as Best African Act at the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards put them firmly on the international music map. The trio, whose name means "school of life", have been making music for 10 years, since meeting at high school in Dakar where they were studying accountancy. Raised in middle-class families, the trio - the singer Faada Freddy, the rapper N'Dongo D, and the ragamuffin DJ Aladji Man - could hardly be further removed from their US counterparts. While the likes of 50 Cent and Jay-Z trade on their disreputable pasts to gain the "respect" of their peers (even if much of their US audience is made up of middle-class white boys), Daara J preach a positive message. Guns and hos don't feature in the lyrics of a trio who are all happily married with children; their beads and charms are hardly bling, and, as Muslims, they don't swig Cristal.

Treading an entirely different path from their gangsta cousins, both musically and lyrically, they weave the traditional rhythms and melodies of West Africa, Cuba (a big influence on Senegalese music) and reggae in and out of their beats. As the title track of their breakthrough third album Boomerang tells us, hip-hop music was "born in Africa and grew up in America". Freddy elaborates: "You throw the boomerang and it travels around the world and then comes home."

Not that Daara J get to see as much of their home, or their combined total of eight children, as they would like. Economics dictate that the trio must split their time between Dakar and Paris, the unofficial business headquarters of francophone African music. They do, however, invest their so-far modest profits in their homeland - they are building a studio there. For this interview, they arrange a Belleville rendezvous, at their management company in the heart of this bustling multi-ethnic quartier of Paris. Until now, Sene-rap has been a fairly well kept secret outside Africa. Musically, Senegal's biggest exports are Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour, though some international attention has recently been gained by Sene-rappers such as Positive Black Soul and Pee Frois. "You have to get your talent confirmed in the place where you live before you go abroad," asserts Freddy, the member with the best English and a penchant for Shakespeare. The youth of Senegal may wish to dress in the same designer sportswear as the black youth of the States, but their native culture remains important to them. "You find the same audience listening to rap as mbalax music," adds Freddy. "There are negative influences in our country but we really want to stick to our culture. We realise that there are values to defend: beautiful culture, beautiful music, beautiful women."

McDonald's-isation has yet to conquer Senegal, in the 44 years since the French moved out and independence was declared. "Our culture is really rich and we can't afford to forget it," says Freddy. That culture includes their religion, which plays an important part in their music. Yet they feel that Islam is regarded with increasing suspicion, if not hostility, in much of the world, including France. "In a country like this, it is very difficult to talk about spirituality. All the television shows is Muslims planting bombs.

"The most important thing we can do is enable people to prick up their ears and keep their eyes open to Africa," says Freddy. "People in Europe have a bad image of our continent: corruption, poverty, war. We want to show that there's a sunny side, too."

'Boomerang' is on Wrasse. Daara J play the Jazz Café, London NW1 (0870 150 0044) tomorrow, and Glastonbury and Womad this summer

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