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).

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