Travel: French connection - In the heartland of rhythm

Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal - Senegal is home to the biggest stars in African music. Catch them live at their local

Mbalax and xiin - the very names of the rhythms of West Africa are almost as exotic as the music itself. In recent years, Senegal has become the capital of modern African music, and Dakar now ranks with New Orleans and Memphis, Havana and Kingston as one of the great musical cities of the world. Many of the biggest recording stars in Africa - Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal, Cheikh Lo and Toure Kundain - are based in the Senegalese capital. I had seen, and been thrilled by, all of them in the concert halls of London. Now I wanted to seek out the music at its source.

This was hardly a difficult assignment, particularly at the Tringa in Dakar, a typically African hotel, ideal for a music obsessive like me. It is owned by Mamadou, who runs Africa Fete, one of the biggest annual music festivals in the continent, and inevitably there was a band playing. The chances of sleep were minimal as Freres Guisse performed until dawn - but this was, after all, why I had come. The bar was almost like an African version of Ronnie Scott's, except for the poolside terrace which, when it grew too sweaty, offered the opportunity to step outside and listen to the pulsating rhythms under a million stars. The city is full of such music clubs, including the Kilimanjaro, which is always worth checking out on the off-chance that you may catch the mighty Youssou N'Dour playing there if he is in town.

First stop the next morning was the Marche du Port on the Boulevard de la Liberation in search of some tapes of the latest Dakar sounds. The universal format in Africa is still the cassette, and the quality is variable, but the choice is wide, and at about pounds 2 a throw it is always worth a look. I found a new recording by Coumba Gawlo, a magnificent young Senegalese diva, and, feeling well satisfied, I took a short walk to the ferry terminal for the le de Goree. A 25-minute journey across the harbour takes you to the highlight of any stay in Dakar.

Designated a world heritage site, Goree is an enchanting island with no roads and no cars, crumbling colonial villas with wrought-iron balconies and delightful harbour restaurants. After the bustle of Dakar, the tranquillity is remarkable, broken only by the sound of pounding tribal drums. The island has a population of about 1,000, including a community of the Baye Fall, an extremely laid-back Islamic sect characterised by dreadlocks, patchwork clothes and clouds of ganja, who live in the battlements of the old castle at the top of the island. For about pounds 2 an hour they will give you drumming lessons - not that you really learn much, but the experience of rhythmically beating a djembe or tama (the typical African talking drums) in their extremely amenable company, is unforgettable.

The atmosphere of Goree today is in stark contrast to its horrific history as one of the main centres of the West-African slave trade until it was banned in 1815. At La Maison Des Esclaves, the prison where slaves were incarcerated before being shipped across the Atlantic, you can take a guided tour to see how the unfortunates were stuffed into tiny cells, chained to the walls and kept partly submerged in sea water. Food was deliberately limited so that the captives were forced to fight over it, thus weeding out the weaker specimens who were then fed to the sharks while the survivors were branded and crammed into the holds for transportation.

It was tempting to linger here, but music was my purpose so I headed out of Dakar to Touba, home to Senegal's most beautiful mosque and a sacred place to the Baye Fall, for it houses the tomb of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, most revered of African Islamic leaders, who died in 1927. In Touba the sound of drumming is even louder than on Goree, but the atmosphere is equally relaxed.

We drove on further north to St Louis, the ancient capital at the mouth of the Senegal river, full of French colonial buildings of elegantly fading grandeur, and a beach of vividly painted fishing vessels stretching as far as the eye could see. In the square we came upon a large crowd gathered around a gris-gris man, dressed in ripped clothes and slashing furiously at himself with a knife. He drew no blood, taken as proof by his audience that the potions he was selling, a vestige of ancient voodoo practices, were magically efficacious. Business was predictably brisk .

Eventually, several hundred miles along the river, we arrived at Podor, the village where the great Baaba Maal lives. That night, we travelled across the sands to a tiny hamlet without roads, electricity or running water to see Maal perform before 1,500 local Fulani people, the tribe to which he belongs. They had arrived from scattered communities across the desert by horse and cart, or on foot.

My journey had involved a jet airliner and a four-wheel-drive vehicle. What united us was a quest to hear some of the purest music to be heard anywhere on earth. Together, as the sun came up over the desert, we knew we had found it.

Fact File

Gettin there: Nigel Williamson paid pounds 532 for a return flight from Paris to Dakar with Air Afrique. The same route is also served by Air France, while Sabena flies to Dakar via Brussels. Air Afrique is one of the most over-booked airlines in the world, and you risk being bumped if you fail to reconfirm 72 hours before travelling.

A cheaper alternative is to use a charter flight to Banjul in neighbouring Gambia, for around pounds 300 through companies such as The Gambia Experience (01703 730888), which quotes pounds 289 for departures on 20 November. From Banjul, you can travel to Dakar by bush taxi for about pounds 5 in nine hours, or fly on a selection of airlines not noted for their punctuality

Accommodation: the Hotel Tringa in Dakar costs about pounds 20 a night and is clean but distinctly basic. More upmarket hotels include the Teranga, Novotel and Merdien President. Apart from the coastal resorts, good hotels are almost non-existent out of Dakar. In rural areas campements are very simple hotels almost invariably without en-suite facilities but mostly clean and safe.

Red tape: British passport holders need no visas for Senegal, nor for the Gambia.

Health precautions: take medical advice on malaria protection and necessary jabs. MASTA: 0891 224100 (a premium-rate number).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015