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It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Senegalese Swing

Windy Farrell is a jazz singer from California.

"Ca nous fait swinguer" — love that swing, says an aficionado at the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival as the tempo shifts from Senegalese jazz to salsa and blues. Aissatou Niang says she's enchanted and delighted with the performances.

Other festivalgoers concur, smiling. They're attending the second edition of a burgeoning jazzfest in Dakar last month that brought together musicians from Senegal, the U.S. and beyond.

The festival is the brainchild of Amadou Koly Niang, a Senegalese man who fell in love with jazz in his teens.

"When I was 14, I started to listen to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Kenny Clark — all those musicians — and I was very into it," says Niang.

As a young man, he coordinated a weekly jazz conference at the American Cultural Center and French Cultural Center in Senegal's capital Dakar.

"Every Monday we had a lecture on jazz," he says. "And when I went to the United States I just found the people that I knew before I went there."

Niang left home to study in California in 1974. There, he made friends with many American jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone, and remained in touch once he returned home to Senegal, where the seeds of the jazz festival were sown. Niang says he'd been planning to bring together a mix of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic — Africa and America — for decades.

"It was my dream. Really, I was supposed to organize this festival 40 years ago or 30 years ago," says Niang. "One day, I just said I'm surrounded with musicians, so why not start doing it now? And that's how I started the festival."

This second edition of the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival is a modest affair, compared to performances and festivals showcasing better known Senegalese music styles such as mbalax.

And Senegal's second largest city, Saint Louis, already hosts its own established, annual international jazz festival.

Aldophe Coly of the Senegalese National Orchestra performs at the jazz festival in Dakar, Senegal.
Seyllou / for NPR
Aldophe Coly of the Senegalese National Orchestra performs at the jazz festival in Dakar, Senegal.

Yet jazz is not a musical genre one immediately associates with Senegal, though the West African country has many fans — and musicians, like crooner Adolphe Coly.

At this year's festival, Dakar's Douta Seck Cultural Centre came alive as Senegal's National Orchestra struck up on a balmy February evening in Dakar. Coly took to the stage, stopping hearts with his arresting falsetto voice, singing Joe Zavinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and Miles Davis's "All Blues," made famous by Dee Dee Bridgewater.

At one point, the unfamiliar sound of plucking and strumming filled the night air. No, not a guitar, not a kora, not a harp. The instrument — a xalam – is a small, five-stringed Senegalese lute, played at the festival by Alioune Ndiaye, jazz-style. Ndiaye swayed in his voluminous white gown, known as a boubou, as he played chords on the xalam, producing some intricate licks.

No surprise, says the organizer, Niang, smiling. "You know, jazz came from Senegal and other parts of Africa. Mbalax, every musical genre can fit into jazz," he says.

Niang says Dakar is ideally located for travel from South Africa, from South America, from North America and from Europe – to become the focal point for music – "for jazz, for African-American music and all kinds of music."

After the Senegalese musicians finished their set, guest performers from the U.S. came on stage — including singer Windy Barnes Farrell. Her curly, mauve-tinged mane and matching purple gown trimmings were blowing in the wind, like her name Windy, she joked.

"I'm feeling good. So good. You feel good?" Barnes asked the audience. "Yes. Yesssss. You feel good," she responded rhetorically reinforcing the agreement of the festivalgoers.

Barnes, who flew in from California, was on her maiden visit to Senegal and was making the most of it.

"I am in what we call the motherland here — Africa. My first time and I wondered how would I feel? I am in love with you," Barnes told the crowd.

"I am your sister, I'm your sister," she repeated. "And I don't know you, but I know you in my soul."

A mighty round of applause greeted Barnes' words as she launched into her own composition, "Club Alabam," followed by a Nina Simone number, while keeping up her banter with the audience.

Bass player Essiet Okun Essiet from Nigeria performs.
Seyllou / for NPR
Bass player Essiet Okun Essiet from Nigeria performs.

Paris-based Colombian salsa singer, Nancy Murillo wowed the audience during her performance. Older women, like Aissatou Niang, danced, showing off their salsa steps and singing along.

"I like dancing. I like music. I like jazz, salsa – Cuban music. Yes. Very much. Very much," Niang said. "I have enjoyed myself very much, like everybody here, as the musicians. This music has long life. Eternal life. I can say jazz is the first music."

She says the Senegalese enjoy life and dance music. "We have it in our blood, yes," Niang concludes. " We like rhythm. Rhythm. Yes."

Equally excited by the evening of music and dance was young choreographer, Papa Sangone Vieira. He got so carried away he jumped up and danced — first in front of the stage and then up on stage, invited by singer Windy Barnes.

Colombian singer Nancy Murillo, left, and Senegalese violinist William Badji.
Seyllou / for NPR
Colombian singer Nancy Murillo, left, and Senegalese violinist William Badji.

"The rhythm of the jazz is the same kind of freedom that we use with traditional African instruments, like drums," says Vieira.

And he uses his voice to imitate a drum, before spinning round to say, "The culture for me, from black America, it's from Africa. It's evolution and they have to come back on their roots."

Festival organizer, Amadou Koly Niang says he's planning to do it all again next year and hopes for more sponsorship, better publicity and bigger audiences at the third edition of the Dakar Goree Jazz Festival.

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