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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable