Saint Louis, Senegal and New Orleans, mirror cities
Symposium and concert
Saint-Louis du Sénégal, La Nouvelle-Orléans: deux villes en miroir is the title of the symposium organized by EHESS (France), Cheikh Anta Diop University (Senegal) and Tulane University (USA) with RFI, which brought together around thirty historians and anthropologists in Saint Louis, Senegal from 4 to 7 June. Music is central to the culture of both cities and a key expression of their mutual cultural influence, both real and imaginary, and so musicians from Louisiana and Senegal were invited to contribute to the event.
We can learn how to look at cities, but we can also learn how to listen to them. The symposium organised in Saint Louis from 4 to 7 June 2012 at Gaston Berger University gathered numerous researchers along with a bunch of musicians whose closing concert perfectly illustrated the musical ties uniting the two port towns. Two traditional xalam players were present at the event, Demma Dia and Yéro Dia, both from Njum Waalo in Senegal’s inner delta, along with Senegalese jazz guitarist Vieux Mac Faye and his seven-man band, and Larry Garner, a Louisianan blues guitarist.
During discussions between researchers and musicians, Vieux Mac Faye was quick to recognise that the blues, and especially the Mississippi delta blues, have influenced his musical career, “We musicians have had outside influence from countries like France and Cuba and we’ve played those musical styles. I’ve also played the blues, in fact I’ve more or less based my career on them: I’m an African bluesman. But for me, the blues is a borrowed notion and a notion that comes from the heart. I believe the reason why Larry (Ed’s note, Gardner) understands me today is that our hearts have spoken with each other. Instruments are only the arms of our hearts. You can’t stick a universal label on the blues, everyone plays their own blues. There are some notes that everyone agrees on, but for others, each asserts his or her own identity."
Although he doesn’t strictly speaking play the blues, the xalam player (or hodou in Pular terminology) Demma Dia, who accompanies Baaba Maal on his international tours, recognizes that his music is close to that of the Mississippi Delta: “The blues and the music I play are like two brothers from the same parents. There’s no conflict when traditional music and the blues get together, only harmony. The blues is a universal language like all the music I play. There are many languages, religions and tastes, but God has given us the capacity to understand each other through our sensitivity and to appreciate things together even when we don’t understand each other linguistically. That’s why we’re keen to take part in musical encounters, particularly when the blues are involved.”
Travelling back and forth between the two continents has enriched music, according to Ibrahima Seck from Cheikh Anta Diop University: "The extraordinary thing is that music has travelled and transformed. But it came back to Africa like a boomerang and Africans have carried on recognising and adopting it. That’s why there are so many bands playing the blues in Senegal, even though young people today are more interested in rap and hip hop.”
Cecile Vidal of the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences talks of how important it is to invite musicians to symposiums like this: “Musicians are perfectly at home in a symposium full of researchers. We study the history of musical influences, and music’s circulation, ruptures and divergences over time. But it’s not just about trying to trace the influences. The most important thing is how musicians in America have at different times since the 19th century and in very different social-political contexts, claimed their African roots, and conversely, how African musicians have looked to American music and in particular African American music, and made it into their own African music. (…) The musicians themselves feed off this relationship between Africa and America.”
Music is an essential part of culture in Saint Louis and New Orleans, and a key expression of their mutual cultural influence, both real and imaginary. Emily Clark, a researcher at Tulane University, gives her feelings and emotions free reign and has an interesting view of the links between the two towns: “Last night, here in Saint Louis, I heard music that could have been played in New Orleans. If closed my eyes as I listened to xalam, I could have been listening to a banjo in Louisiana. And it’s the same with the blues played to us by Senegalese musicians. It’s really evanescent! Someone said at the symposium that music is the most fluid aspect of culture, it circulates easily from one place to another, and I think that’s true. It comes from a basic human impulse, but it’s also detectable in the musical traditions of each of the two towns, echoing one another. It’s clear that music circulates between the two places, and it’s through music that we’re the most connected. The major difference, and that’s what surprised me here in Saint Louis, is that in New Orleans, as we’ll see next year, music is everywhere in the street every day. There are children in the street, playing for a few coins, there are singers interpreting the blues. The sound of the old town of New Orleans is the sound of music, and not just jazz, but all kinds of music, and dance too. I was expecting to find the same thing here in Senegal, and I was really surprised when I didn’t. That’s one of the most interesting things: when I shut my eyes it’s the same thing, but when I open them it’s different.”
To make a comparative history of Saint Louis and New Orleans involves studying the sounds of the two cities, the noises and music generated by their histories. It’s a side that Emily Clark emphasises: “Music has a long history in New Orleans. There was a place called Congo Square which was a performance spot where African slaves used to play their music, and they would dance when they had free time. But over the years, African descendants in New Orleans learned European music and they learned to play it well. They created a new music from it, a hybrid type of music. They mixed in European instruments and some European musical notions, and that’s how jazz was born. And it’s specifically American.”
It’s important not to underestimate the political dimension of this music. Making music was also an act of protest. It meant that slaves, for whom nothing was permitted, could find a space to express themselves. Emily Clark adds, “One of the most interesting things that happened during the civil rights movement in the sixties in the USA is that black musicians dug down deep and asserted their African heritage. They reintroduced it into the contemporary music they were playing. That was a really important turning point in the music played in New Orleans. There were some musicians, especially the Batiste family, who really specialised in putting African musical forms and African instruments into their musical arrangements, and that’s really a political statement. It was as if they were saying: “Yes I can play,” like Wynton Marsalis the famous trumpeter when he said, “Yes, I can play Mozart and Handel”, but what’s really important is the real negro music, in the sense of negritude. So it was really a political statement. That might bother people who think that the presence of African music and African elements in jazz and New Orleans music were the vestiges of African music, but that’s not so. It was the taking back and rehabilitating of African music.”
For its first instalment, the symposium on comparative history between Saint Louis and New Orleans showed how jazz was born from the circulation of men and their culture across the Atlantic – a musical laboratory born from a forced encounter, but also from cross-breeding and the reinterpretation of mutual influences. This comparative history takes us back to the origins of what we generally call world music. Next year in New Orleans, the focus will be on discovering how music recounts the American reality, in which slavery’s daughter, segregation, made racism a firm feature of society – a far cry from Senegalese “terenga” (hospitality).
The second instalment of the symposium will take place from 23 to 25 April 2013 at Tulane University in New Orleans (Louisiana/United States)
Listen on RFI: La Marche du Monde recorded in St Louis, Senegal
Saturday 23 June at 13.10 UT, African broadcast, and Sunday 24 June at 9.10 and 15.10 Paris time, world broadcast.
By Valérie Nivelon and Valérie Passelègue, collaboration with Cécile Compeani
Translation: Anne-Marie Harper