I mentioned at the beginning of the week that I spent part of my time in Senegal in meetings with rappers. Let’s hold that thought for a moment. This is from Mark Hudson’s 1998 novel The Music in My Head:
“The sound was like a great black hole, out of which the splintering shards of Salifou Nyang’s guitar ushered in an itchy, scratching rhythm that went undulating endlessly up and down, while Papa Gorgi came down like the wolf on the fold – letting rip with a fierce, apocalyptic grandeur, colliding immediately with the talking drum, which came booming and reverberating right into the middle of your brain, knocking you totally off balance, while the tumbas and timbales went on rattling away, like a relentless hammering on hub-caps and dustbin-lids – and miles above it all, a single sax, mildly distorted by reverb, floated like a fading star.” (121)
You can hear this song, almost, if you can find it.* It’s “Boubou N’Gary” by Etoile 2000. Hudson tells a story about it – that it was delivered to a radio station two hours after it was recorded, unmixed, and was an instant smash – that allows identification. “Boubou N’Gary” does not have a saxophone, but otherwise the description is spot on.
The Music in My Head is full of this sort of sleight of hand. Youssou N’Dour is a main character in the novel. Peter Gabriel and Salif Keita are in the background. Wole Soyinka makes a cameo appearance. But they’re all renamed, concealed. Senegal becomes Tekrur; Dakar becomes N’Galam. So Hudson has room to play around.
Still, this novel gets everything right. Detail after detail. I don’t want to say that there’s no better Dakar novel – remember that table of novels at NEA Senegal – but if you know one, I’m begging you, translate it for me.
“But I’m not fully taking this in, any more than I’m noticing the fact that the windscreen is shatterd into a great spider’s web, that the passenger door doesn’t close properly, that there are wires hanging out everywhere, that the foam is bursting out of the seats, or that everything is covered in that grey encrustation of dust and indescribable other matter that is Africa, or indeed than I’m paying attention to the driver’s amiable but meaningless small talk, which I can’t understand.” (31)
I was in that cab, that exact cab, still on the streets of Dakar ten years later. Hudson’s Dakar is a scarier place than the one I visited. Maybe safety has improved over the last ten years. Maybe Hudson is borrowing pieces of other cities, Lagos, say. Maybe the menace is in the head of the narrator. All three, I think. But otherwise, this book is it.
As a novel, Hudson’s book has some problems, first-novel stuff. He sets up some problems for which he never quite finds solutions. But as a book about Dakar, it’s first-rate, and as a book about African music, it’s a classic. Headlong, ecstatic, compulsive.
The novel is about a burned-out English music promoter, Andrew Litchfield, who gets a second chance at the big time through African music and the “world music” boom. We join Litch just at the moment when the ride ends. He became a Senegalese music promoter just by wanting to do it, just by showing up. One of the novels uncanny accuracies.
Ma femme is trying to bring Sen Kumpë to the U.S. for a little tour of college campuses next year. They’re good – you can hear them on African Underground Vol. 1, available here, or at their Myspace page. We met another young guy, Hot Rebel, by pure coincidence. He gave me copies of his demos.** He’s good, too. We visited his studio, a little box with a microphone, keyboard, mixer, and computer. First album coming out soon. Here's a video of his, which I watched on his computer, in his studio. Now I'm bragging.
“Oh yes. It always used to be that if you were white in Africa, you were automatically a VIP. It’s not so much like that now, but you can still play it to your advantage if you so choose. Isn’t that neo-colonial, I hear you ask. Well, it is and it isn’t, because not anyone can do it. You couldn’t do it. No chance.” (258)
This is the only inaccuracy in the book. I’m nobody. But if I could have stayed, if I had wanted – it’s all very seductive, and completely ridiculous. I could do it. You could do it. Hot Rebel's manager is a Jamaican life coach who is in Dakar because his wife works at the British Embassy. He just showed up. Dakar is an exciting place.
* A CD was released along with the novel. The novel never came out in the U.S., but the CD did. Baffling. It's an all time great African record, ranking with The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, and Guitar Paradise of East Africa, and The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara.
** The Senegalese music business is a disaster, and the glory days of tape shopping may be in the past. But I came home with multiple copies of Sen Kumpë’s new record, and Hot Rebel’s demos. And a mbalax mix CD made for me by the bartender at the Pen’Art nightclub. Senegal is awesome.