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Wasis Diop

Wasis Diop: In The Rhythm of Life

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 26 April 2001 - Wasis Diop's song "African Dream" was about Africans who dream of developing a modern society. The song said it was a bad dream and it just might turn into a nightmare.

His songs on his album "Toxu" (Mercury) were about a possible impending demise of African culture. This is about all he sings about. It has been sung about many times before to the cliché-point. But Diop adapts the centuries-old African tradition of story-telling songs to include electronics and other Western frames of reference.

His interpretations include elements of latin bass, reggae guitar, French bagpipes and even Japanese opera. He sings in French, English and his native Wolof. He is a humanist, a philosopher, worldly, elegant - what the French call a "bel homme."

When he grew up in the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal, they were still pretty much just bush. It was very beautiful where he grew up. Splendid sunsets and poetry and music and love everywhere every day. But no money. Everything but money. He is aware that this too might be a cliché - the happy African, laughing and dancing despite poverty. But he finds new sides to the old story and he approaches all sides with fresh perspectives.

Diop, (49) believes that in order for Africans to develop a truly modern society it might have to be modeled on the Japanese experience. The way he understands it, that means first and foremost not to lose your own culture. Lean on it, build on it, but do not exchange it for something "superior."

"When we come here to live," he said, "we hold on to our African experience for dear life. Up here I am even more African than Africans who stay down there. Because I think about it all the time. When you live in a developed country and you go down there and you see how rich the society is without any money at all you ask yourself which country is really richer? My songs are about that."

"Toxu" means renaissance in Wolof. The title is flavored with at least a taste of irony: "The developed world is obviously much more powerful than we are. All we have is our culture, and if we do not find a way to communicate how important it is, then it's the end for us. We are going to disappear. It is important to us that you understand our culture. That you learn from our culture. For example, we believe that people get sick when they are not in the rhythm of life. They are out of sync, so to speak. So we heal the sick with rhythms. We play certain rhythms for them and they get better and rejoin society. More recently, you have musical therapy in the West too."

After arriving in Paris to live in 1975, he went to a photography school for awhile. His soundtrack for his elder brother Djibril Diop Mambety's film "Hyenes" was important in world music circles. His band the West African Cosmos is now referred to as "legendary." Diop is popular with Senegalese students and intellectuals, and he credits the Ugandan singer/songwriter Geoffrey Oryema as being one of his prime influences. The title song of Toxu" is about an elderly African who comes to Europe for the first time. "Get up children. Follow me," he says to the Africans who, like Diop, are living here. And he takes them back home.

A song is called (in English) "My Son." "In Africa the father is like God, the earth. Le père is la terre,' he explained. "The father never makes pleasantries with the son. He wears a mask, his face is like a mirror. Father and son do not laugh together. The son laughs with his mother, not the father. It is not the role of the father to laugh. Even when I was 30, after I had read many books and I had traveled a great deal, still, when I saw my father I was terrorized. I was incapable of speaking a word when he was around. And my song says that you will only understand how incredible your father really was after he no longer exists."

Diop's bio on his internet web site describes him as being part of the "African new wave." The term is confusing. The Western pop music style called "new wave" may or may not be new, but it is not a universally admired current. The media being the message, one essential thing to remember here is the fact that he does indeed have a web site.

The following information comes to you courtesy of the Wasis Diop web site. Performing in Tokyo with the saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, he discovered that "Japanese audiences like African music at least as much as I like sushi." He appeared in some Mitsubishi commercials. In Jamaica, he collaborated with Jimmy Cliff. And he had an "influential encounter" with Lee "Scratch" Perry, who taught him "studio magic."

His song "Everything (...Is Never Quite Enough)," sung in English and French, is about an African who comes to a "modern" country and looks up a woman he knows. He has her phone number. But he only gets her voice on her answering machine. He never talks to her live. She leaves messages for him on her machine. They only communicate through machines: "People in modern' civilizations protect themselves with machines - answering machines, faxes, e-mail. There is no more need to see people. They have a virtual existence. They no longer know who they are, they have no responsibility for what they say. It's frightening. I don't think this is progress. I don't think Africa should go in this direction. Although there are already cyber cafes in Dakar."

Another song is about all the old cars in Dakar: "We are the garbage dump of the west. We like it that way. We want to drive cars and we cannot afford new ones. The old cars spew fumes behind them. It is illegal to drive most of these cars in the West. The pollution is beyond belief in Dakar. People are getting sick. But they are so proud. Look at my car - honk honk.' If people cannot afford a good car they should not buy any car. Because these old cars are going to kill us."

After all these years here, Diop has adapted to European time. He wears a watch now. In Africa, "the notion of time is different. The days are longer there. We find it difficult to be on time. If you give an African an appointment for noon and he doesn't show up until three and you have not waited for him, then when he sees you next he'll say I came to our rendezvous but you weren't there." Diop laughed long and hard, shaking his head: "He considers it your fault for not being there. After all, he showed up. He'll even say I have witnesses.'

"In Africa it's like this. We do not run after life. Life runs after us."

Wasis Diop

Wasis Diop: No Sant
Triloka Records

Wasis Diop

Wasis Diop: Toxu

Related links: Biography of Wasis Diop in French

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz and world music editor of

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