Youssou N'Dour's baby girl is well strapped to her father at the miniature airport of the Sahara town of Dakhla. This is no family holiday. The luminary of Senegal and ambassador of African music has chosen to premiere his new album, Dakkar-Kingston, at Dakhla's very own festival. The parched town balances on a thin peninsular on the southernmost part of Morocco's Atlantic coast, scorched by the desert sun and flayed by the brutal wind. The Hassani inhabitants are not well-acquainted with festivals, so the town is abuzz.
Life is not complete without witnessing N'Dour live. It is an incomparable stage show. Percussionists strike up a polyrhythmic carnival while exquisite backing singers sway nonchalantly beneath kaleidoscope head-wraps. Bassists groove, guitarists astonish and dancers perform traditional sabar with astounding leaps, kicks, and a seemingly impossible co-ordination of limbs. One does a series of acrobatics, leaping and somersaulting across the stage with the widest of smiles.
N'Dour strides across the stage, long-limbed, commanding and immaculate. His voice is as transfixing as ever and he runs the concert from beginning to end. Through reggae to the traditional mbalax music of Senegal, from the frenetic numbers to evocative ballads, N'Dour is in charge of his show. And it runs like clockwork, as it always has. What is a little different, though, is the music. Dakkar-Kingston is a reggae album. But why? "This year marks 50 years of independence in many African countries, We wanted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the greats," explains N'Dour. "Bob Marley was the first star from an underdeveloped country who touched people throughout the world. His success has really pushed us to believe in ourselves.
"And this album had to begin on African soil." he adds, looking at the Atlantic. "I had never been to Dakhla before. It's a magnificent place." Another proponent of African music, Aziz Sahmaoui bounds on to the stage, his grin broad and gleeful. With his band - including the exceptional bassist Alune - he shares the stage with the Hassani music figure Selmou and his group, robed in sky blue. The pianist Aronas settles behind the keyboards. The eclectic gathering is complete.
The music bursts out. Sahmaoui and his group demonstrate a multiplicity of origins and influences, as funk, rock and jazz jumble with Marghrebin themes. Sahmaoui switches from three-stringed n'gouni to four-double-stringed mandolin to acoustic guitar. Selmou's haunting Saharan melodies meander from his four-stringed tidinite, accompanied by his group's stirring mass of percussion. "And Aronas brings his magic," cries Sahmaoui. "He brings his presence, his musicianship, his movement, his speed."
The concert follows a week-long collaboration between strangers. Sahmaoui and his group from Paris, and Aronas from the UK were guests of Selmou on Hassani soil. They had never met before. "Hassani music is full of beautiful texts and extraordinary melodies," Sahmaoui observes. "We wanted to bring a kind of fusion, add an electric element and mix it with Selmou's music. So we listened to what Selmou does, took notes and began slowly mixing together. In four days of rehearsals we created the final performance."
Sahmaoui's vocals ignite the crowd with the two-day-old composition written especially for the festival, for the people of Dakhla. His voice carries hauntingly over the wind: "Hey, DakhlaSahara DakhlaBrhor DakhlaSalam alik!" Sahmaoui cherishes the traditions of his country. He left Marrakech for Paris at the age of 18, but connections run deep. His noteworthy musical career - the Zawinul Syndicate and Paris's Orchestre National de Barbes - has led him through various realms. Jazz, funk and rock are all evident in his sound, but the native resonances of Morocco are unmistakable. "I have always tried to preserve the traditional, cultural side of music," he says. "I've had the chance to go into other musical spheres, but I've always brought my own musical touch from my own culture including chaabi, Marghrebin, Amazigh, gnawa and Hassani music."
Swing back to the podium. Eyes glittering behind her glasses, Malouma stands centre stage, extending an open hand from beneath the emerald cloth that swathes her from head to toe. Saharan women stretch their hands back towards her from the audience, calling out requests. Her connection with the audience is palpable.
She's a veritable diva. Malouma's deep, soulful vocals and the desert blues of her compositions conjure up a Mauritanian Aretha Franklin. Deep bass and electric guitar add a rock element, while meandering melodies and Malouma's 14stringed ardin make for Moorish echoes. "Malouma is the musical director of the group and she gives a lot of guidelines and instructions," explains Phillipe Parant, the solo guitarist. "And her words are never empty, but very militant about life, love, of course, and the position of women."
I'm sitting with Malouma on her bed. The window looks out over a lagoon. It's morning. She has welcomed me with a generous smile and has me sit beside her. A couple of men squat on the floor and a robed woman serves tea and sends text messages. "Moorish women from my culture are strong," insists Malouma, also an outspoken political figure in Mauritania. "They make the decisions, they're in charge. This strength is a very positive aspect of our culture."
Malouma is heir to a musical tradition. Her musician father was her first teacher. "He was my primary influence, the first to teach me the blues you hear in my songs today. "The blues maybe originate in Mauritania, I can hear it in my country's music," she muses. "Ask me if I sing American music and I'll tell you that I learnt from my father's music. And he'd never heard the American blues." Mozambique's Positivo use music to raise Aids awareness. Their multifarious style embraces rock, funk, reggae, jazz, a catching bounce to their sound.
"People of Dakhla are fantastic and welcomed us with open arms. We visited houses, and drank plenty of Moroccan tea," laughs Positivo's Pierre Dufloo. "We learnt some Arabic, which we used during our concert and also saw our name written in Arabic - beautiful." When Daoudi is spotted in public, havoc ensues. Adolescents sprint towards him and the girls shriek. Morocco's national star, and undisputed king of north African chaabi music, he has arguably achieved more notoriety than any other singer in the kingdom and toured internationally.
"I sing about subjects that young Moroccans understand because I come from the heart of Morocco," explains Daoudi. "I sing about suffering, education, love and the problems that Moroccans experience. "I sing pure, traditional chaabi, but I also integrate more contemporary instruments, guitars, drums, bass." His performance concludes the festival, an electrifying pandemonium within the audience. "It's what I've been waiting for," says Khadija, who had pushed her way to the front of the crowd. "Daoudi is Morocco's star. He's our star. He sings about what we live through every day."
Now in its fourth year, the festival is young and improvements could be made, notably technical issues regarding sound, which some musicians complained of. It's an enchanting place, though, giving a fulfilling sensation of breathing space. "A crossroads between sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb and Europe, Dakhla has made its mark," says El Mami Boussif, the president of the festival. "It's an earth home for the nomads of the desert, sea and sky."
?Youssou N'Dour's album DakkarKingston is out now.