By: Momodou Ndow
As far as I can remember, Senegalese music has always been in my ambient surroundings. Allow me go to give a little background; my Grandma’s radio used to play Madina Sabakh and Ndiaga Mbaye songs, and I grew up listening and dancing to Senegalese music too, particularly, the music of Youssou Ndour, Thione Seck and Omar Pene. Their music was played at almost every social function. A Thione Seck song is quite long though, approximately 35 minutes, enough to significantly wear out your dancing shoes.
To say that Gambian and Gambians played an integral role in building and nurturing their careers would be an understatement, especially Youssou Ndour’s. Youssou started coming to Gambia as a teenager, when his musical talent was at its infancy; his music partially ripe and his voice moderately rich. He used to run-away from home and cross the border into Gambia with his band. This was prior to his father’s approval of his music profession. Most of us have witnessed Youssou’s music evolve from “ndaga” to “mbalax”, and have cheerfully watched him blossom into a superstar and become a world-renowned singer.
It is nearly impossible to talk about African music without invoking the name and music of Youssou Ndour, and Gambian audiences have been there from the inception – supporting and encouraging him. Gambians are always excited beyond containment when Youssou Ndour is coming to town. A new outfit is what the doctor will always order. The relationship between the artist and his captivating audience has always been magical!
Over the years, lots of other Senegalese artists have followed in the footsteps of Youssou, Thione and Omar. Virtually every popular and successful Senegalese artist’s career was partly built in Gambia. The majority of them frequent Gambia to play concerts that are generally sold out, and patrons shower them with cash and jewelry, including those who can least afford it. Every time a Senegalese artist visits Gambia, he/she will make out like a bandit, in cash and kind. Not only do the audiences pay to attend their shows, they throw money at them too, especially when their name is called out in a song by the artist (woyan). Some patrons will even lobby to have their name on the “woyan” list.
It is the fastest way to gain fifteen minutes of fame, second only to a spectacular scandal, and some Gambians will give an arm and a leg to have their name on such a list. Beside those on the “woyan” list, there are other private individuals who have adopted some of these Senegalese artists; they host them when they are in town and provide them with a temporary life of luxury, Gambian style. You will sometimes hear artists give a shout out to some of these individuals in their recorded songs (deew sangam sa Gambia, belai yaa bakh!).
Gambia is known to be a small and relatively poor country, but not to Senegalese artists. For them, Gambia is an orchard garden full of money trees that are always ripe for the picking. One after the other, they come to harvest. In the past two decades, Gambia’s president too has become the biggest and tallest “money tree”, always bearing fruit. Numerous praise songs have been sung of him by some of these artists in exchange for some raw cash.
Senegalese artists have now found themselves in the center of Gambia’s economy, a comfortable location that allows them to collect money from the state and the people. Double-dip! This relationship between Senegalese artists and Gambian audience is not limited to Gambia; it has now spilled over beyond the boundaries of the country into the Diaspora. The scenario is the same in Atlanta, Seattle and London. Gambians have always gone above and beyond in supporting Senegalese artists, and sometimes to their detriment. Even mediocre artists are cashing in too. Do Gambians now see this as a duty?
Most Gambians and Senegalese alike will tell you that Gambia and Senegal are the same – same people, food, cultural practices, and local languages. Many Gambians have relatives in Senegal, and vice versa, thus making that statement true for all intents and purposes. But the relationship between Senegalese artists and Gambian audience is a different story; it is ONE WAY FREEWAY and Gambians audiences keep on giving and giving, and some in hopes of a sheer mention of their name in a song. What exactly is the value of such mention and what does it attain or validate? The desire to collect more tolls from Gambians by Senegalese artists has also intensified; some of them are directly calling Gambians asking them for money or material items, they can no longer wait for the upcoming concerts to collect.
There are lots of exclamations of disbelief in some of the stories I’ve heard and the ones I personally know about. Seems like some Gambians just can’t have enough of Senegalese artists, and are willing to do what ever it takes to keep them pleased, but most importantly, get a verbal confirmation from them about their kindness and generosity (belai yaa bakh). There is definitely value in entertainment, but what is its worth and when does it become foolishly overvalued?
Whether out of a false sense of duty or detrimental generosity, Gambians continue to heavily support Senegalese artists. The question now is: should Senegalese artists also give back to exhibit their appreciation? If we go by the notion that Gambia and Senegal are the same and the people and culture are intertwined, then they should, in my opinion. Among all the Senegalese artists, Youssou Ndour is arguably the most successful by far, with major investments in Senegal. He has invested the proceeds of his music sales to establish one of a handful of independent television and newspaper groups.
But I have no knowledge of a single investment he has made in Gambia. And if he deems the economic climate in Gambia is not suitable for him to invest, then he should consider possibly hiring a decent amount of Gambians to work in his various investments in Senegal. I’m confident a few do qualify. Starting a foundation in Gambia to support the Arts is also not a bad idea, and Youssou should ponder on that as well. As Gambian artists continue to warm the bench waiting for their turn to shine, they will definitely benefit from something like this to help hone their skills. This idea of giving back should not only be limited to Youssou Ndour alone, the likes of Vivian,Titi, Assan Njie, Pape Diouf and Thione Seck should also consider it. It’s satisfying to take, but it is immensely rewarding to give back.
Senegal is undoubtedly more advanced in the arts compared to Gambia. Moreover, it is considerably bigger with a population of 13.5 million compared to Gambia’s 1.5 million. It is a country that has made enormous contributions to African arts and culture and inspired centuries of poetry, music, literature, dance, and the visual arts.
The artistic quality and talent pool there is much more superior. Senegal is also a politically conscious nation where citizens cherish and jealously guard their sweet and tasty democracy, and the recent demonstration against the ex-president, Abdoulie Wade, is a true testament to that. They are very much aware of the political situation in Gambia, and even lampoon the president on TV for his tyrannical ways. An artist like Ouza Diallo (a highly politically conscious artist) has for decades sang songs of protest against the Senegalese government, but is now singing praise songs for Gambia’s tyrant in exchange for cash. I wonder what happened there.
Music has long been a part of every struggle including the antislavery movement in the nineteenth century, the labor movement in the twentieth century, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, but the civil rights movement brought a new level of intensity of singing that left a legacy of “freedom songs” now sung all around the world. If Senegal and Gambia are truly the same, then Senegalese artists should show their solidarity in this regard, and not sing the praise of Gambia’s tyrant for cash. In a 2/19/12 interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Youssou Ndour said the following “we are allowing a dictatorship to set in here. Senegal needs to free itself, to rediscover its democracy.” I wish Youssou could publicly say the same about Gambia. After all, Gambia and Senegal are the same.
This piece is meant to only examine the relationship between Senegalese artist and Gambian audience.