Diop: In The Rhythm of Life
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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
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.'
Africa it's like this. We do not run after life. Life runs after us."
Diop: No Sant
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 Culturekiosque.com.
to Mike Zwerin | Back to
Nouveau Magazine | Back to
you value this page, please tell
a friend or
our mailing list.
- 2001 Culturekiosque Publications Ltd
All Rights Reserved