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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 23:37 GMT 00:37 UK
Rap returns home to Africa
By Lawrence Pollard
BBC arts correspondent

Senegal's capital, Dakar, is home to thousands of rap groups, most of whom have no hope of ever getting onto CD.
Album cover of Boomerang, by Senegalese rap group Daara J
Daara J see themselves as the camera of society

But Daara J are one of the success stories - the Senegalese rap group have just played the UK's Glastonbury and Womad festivals and won a BBC World Music award.

A good year then, and the message from Faada Freddy, Ndongo D and Alhadji Man is that rap is going home.

The title track of their album Boomerang claims that rap was born not in New York, but in Senegal - it is returning to its roots, like a boomerang.

Modern griots

Senegal of course is home to many griots, the legendary West African storytellers and praise-singers who live off their art. They used to make up what was in effect a caste apart, licensed observers and critics.

Sounds rather like how rap would like to see itself today.

Senegalese rap group Daara J (Copyright Wrasse Records)
In Senegal rappers have a lot of responsibility and you're given respect according to your message
Daara J
"There's what we call 'Tasso' - it's poetry, an offshoot of griot music," says Freddy who does most of the talking in his fluent English.

"It's been around since before slavery travelled to America with the slaves. Rappers of today are all modern griots.

If you listen well to the record you'll find we're trying to give a projection of Tasso and 'Kebetu' - the ancestors of rap. Kebetu is another of the griot styles - a really fast rap."

Freddy proceeds to demonstrate in a whirl of Wolof, a Senegalese language, and French.

I ask him what it means.

"All hip-hoppers have the same standards - rhyme and reality."

Rapper responsibility

Sene-rap is not exactly big business but it is enormously important - even politically influential.

I ask Daara J what rap they first heard?

It's good to hear a bass drum replaced by a calabash
Faada Freddy
"We grew up with the PE," says Freddy in his fluent English, referring to US-based rap act Public Enemy.

"That brought us together. Alhadji Man was more into reggae and Bob Marley," Freddy adds, and Alhadji nods vigorously in agreement.

"The US sets the tone for rap obviously, but it's not always a positivity that they're preaching.

We, the Africans, have another reality - corruption, hunger, lack of development - we have to get out of our suffering, so we're more interested in conscious rap."

Cultural hip hop

Public Enemy's lead rapper, Chuck D, famously said rap was the ghetto's CNN. I ask the group if they seem themselves in a similar role.

Alhaji Man performing at Womad
All Daara J's lyrics are in their native Wolof language
"We're the camera of society. In Senegal rappers have a lot of responsibility and you're given respect according to your message and how you abide by your culture."

That goes for the music not just the lyrics. While US hip hop was built on the bones of sampled fragments of soul singer James Brown and R'n' B, Daara J like to use the sounds from their traditions.

"It's good to hear a bass drum replaced by a calabash or a dumdum talking drum. We're trying to provide that cultural part in the hip hop, with African roots and a culture touch."

Whereupon Ndongo D - the human beatbox - spits into action on his mike and we're treated to an impromptu hip-hop shout out to Dakar, The BBC and Daara J.

Socially conscious and musically adventurous - not for nothing does their name translate as "School of life".

Senegal's stars scoop music awards
12 Feb 03  |  Entertainment


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