Youssou N’dour. In Dakar. Mind and heart blown.


Be forewarned: This is going to be a long one, and a little overwrought…

My host sister, Mamie, told me that unlike every other show in Senegal, Youssou’s actually start at the time indicated on the ticket. So a half hour before that time, I started hurrying her up. She was dressed to the nines – skintight red pantsuit, platform heels, pancake makeup, hair specially coiffed, the works – and flipping out about which earrings to wear, which bag to bring, what nail polish color to put on. I had thrown on jeans, sandals and the fanciest t-shirt I have here, which is actually not that fancy, and I was like, “You look great, let’s go.” It was sort of troubling how effortlessly I stepped into the put-upon husband role.

We finally left the house an hour late and stopped en route for her friend, who made the taxi wait another twenty minutes in the middle of the street. When the friend finally came outside I was like, “What the…?” She was wearing a floor-length fuchsia and electric purple satin dress. There were two eight-inch fabric rosettes along the neckline. Her wig went to her waist and the tips of the hair were dyed to match her dress. Her eyelids were shaded half in hot pink, half in purple. Her false eyelashes were so long that they curled back up and hit her eyebrows. In short, she was DRESSED UP. I figured that was just her thing.

Until we arrived at the Grand Theatre, and I saw a sea of people decked out in their finer-than-finest. It was like one step beyond white tie. Acres of fabric, avalanches of sparkle – sequins on top of rhinestones on top of glitter on top of lamé on top of pearls on top of diamanté (I don’t even know what that is but it sounds right), makeup colors that I have not seen since the 90s, not a heel less than four inches high, headwraps that rendered the seats of the people behind them “partially obstructed view.” I turned to Mamie and asked, “Um, why did you not tip me off about this?” (She did not have a very good answer. I think she was too busy flipping out about her own outfit.) For a moment I thought Security was going to turn me away at the door, but no one seemed to care that I had not gotten the memo to dress like a Miss Senegal contestant.

Speaking of Miss Senegal… There she was in the first row when we entered the auditorium. It was just her and like two hundred other people in the 1000s-capacity room, because even though we were over an hour and a half late… Senegal. So Mamie grabbed us three front-row-center seats. When I saw Youssou N’dour at BAM last year I didn’t really see him so much as appreciate that the red blob moving across the stage was him, so while I felt a little sheepish about occupying the very first row, I also thought: Youssou N’dour. Senegal. Front row. Jesus fucking Christ this could not be more surreally awesome.

…Until it was more surreally awesome. The opening band was Youssou’s drummer leading a group of like sixty other drummers playing the drum I’m obsessed with, while mesmerizing dancers busted out in the most amazing moves that had me literally in tears because of the heights of magnificence that humans are capable of reaching. I have since found out that the type of dance – and the drum itself – is called sabar

This group put me in such a joyful trance that I couldn’t have even cared less about Youssou anymore, I just wanted it to never ever end.

But it did end and then Youssou came on and my life (in Senegal) was complete because the entire auditorium – which was still filling up three hours after the scheduled start time because the Senegalese give new meaning to the term fashionably late – got to its feet and started loudly singing along to songs that I have always just hummed because they are in Wolof.

Soon after this point my phone died, so I cannot share with you the many moments during which my heart felt so full to bursting that I became self conscious and felt silly about it: when Youssou sang a duet with a woman whose voice was so powerful it sent chills down my spine (oh, thank you, YouTube, here it is), when the crowd sitting behind the stage started waving Senegalese flags, when Youssou put his hand over his heart and sang “New Africa” in a salute to Senegalese Independence Day the next day, when a woman came down to the stage wearing a humongous tunic with Youssou’s ten-times larger than life face imprinted on it and stopped the show to futilely attempt to take a selfie with him for three confused minutes (and which he was totally cool with – he even tried to help her figure out her phone, to no avail), when the saxophonist waved to us because we had met him at a jazz night the previous weekend, when the sabar dancer transcended the bounds of human anatomy with his maneuvers…

I’m pretty sure the night of Youssou will remain the highlight of my time in Senegal. It was just off the charts amazing.

Oh, and there’s an epilogue. When I got home my host mom was like, “I saw you on TV.” Apparently the same video feed that was playing on the screens in the auditorium was also going out live to the nation via Youssou’s television channel. (Yeah, I didn’t know he had one either.) There was a moment during the show when I caught my short-haired, wildly dancing self on the screens and quickly turned my back, not caring if it would be an obvious snub of the camera because I was so embarrassed and unwilling to be projected to the entire audience. I am so, so glad I didn’t realize then that the audience in question was actually the entire country of Senegal. I would have hidden in my seat the whole time if I had.

Yesterday a teacher at the language center asked me if I was at the Youssou N’dour show; he thought he saw someone who looked just like me on TV. I just had to laugh at the irony that I cut my hair short a day before leaving New York so that I could avoid being seen by people I knew if I hated it. Instead, me and my mushroom cloud of a haircut have now been seen by every friend and stranger in Senegal.

This country, though. I am so much the richer for having spent time in this country.

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