Sunday, July 24, 2011

Saint Louis Jazz Fest

Not THAT Saint Louis, but the Saint Louis in Senegal.  The program featured some top name talent including headliner Kenny Barron on piano, but this entry is more a look at Saint Louis.
Saint Louis was formerly THE capital of West Africa during the French colonial period.  The town is listed as a UNESCO Heritage site and I'm beginning to wonder just how lax the standards are at UNESCO... ("Hey, Eunice - remember that old slipcover we had for the davenport?  You think that might qualify us for some UNESCO money?"  "Of course, Ned.  Just using the phrase davenport in the application will qualify us...")

It's not that Saint Louis isn't without its history.  It's that the entire town is a complete dump that hasn't been maintained since the French left over 50 years ago.  Even though it's named Saint Louis, you can see remnants of how this place was essentially New Orleans for Africa.  Many buildings had terraces overlooking the neatly aligned streets and you can almost imagine ceiling fans whirring while self-important people were drinking cold lemonades and being served by staff wearing white suits.  It was probably a pretentious little town, but it was probably also really nice.

I stayed outside of the town in a beach area that had five hotels.  The route to this "tourist" section passed directly by the real, live fishing village portion of the town.  There was fished piled high with all the aroma you might expect from fish sitting out in the sunshine for hours on end.  There is apparently no ice in Saint Louis...

Saint Louis was the first time I ever took a horse-drawn taxi.  I negotiated a fare of about $2, but ended up tipping the man more when I realized just how much the horse had to work.  It was my way of making sure the horse ate that night, too.

There are miles upon miles of white sand beaches with nary a single person occupying any space at all (save for Sunday, when the locals head out en masse and getting a taxi or bus back into town is impossible).  I stayed at a relatively expensive hotel (about $50 per night, with swimming pool and direct beach access), but decided I wanted to support a local merchant while I was in the area, so I sat down for lunch at a makeshift restaurant that appeared to be part village/part tourist accomodations. 

I was greeted by a kind woman who asked me what I would like to drink.  I was served me a cold Coca-Cola (which seemed to take about 10 minutes to arrive) and then she took my order.  I asked for "the special" - figuring it would either be the best meal or something about to go rancid - but that I would get "the real deal." 

She placed my order with her son, the chef, and then sat with me for a conversation that lasted about 15 minutes.  Then she offered to give me a tour of the cabanas that were for rent for the princely sum of $5 per night.  The reason they were so cheap was because there was no electricity. This got me to thinking about the Coca Cola and I realized they probably had to run down to the corner store to get me the bottle!  It also got me to thinking about how they stored the fish they were about to serve me...
Anyway, she left me alone for awhile to relax and listen to the waves.  After about 15 minutes, I began to walk around the area and visited with a shopkeeper who probably hadn't sold anything since the Clinton administration.  After another 30 minutes I was relaxed enough (and certainly hungry enough!) to begin poking around the small village and couldn't find anyone that even appeared to be working on preparing me a meal.  My hostess and her son were both gone.

I waited a total of 75 minutes and the area appeared nearly devoid of activity.  I left enough money for the Coca Cola - and a generous tip - and walked down the beach back to my hotel.  On the way back, I was wary of a wild dog.  I remembered seeing this exact same dog the previous day gnawing on a freshly killed goat with a small pack of wild dogs directly on the beach.  It didn't take a genius to figure out the owner of the goat had not planned on serving goat to a pack of wild dogs.  The thing that struck me the most was thinking this was the only time in my entire stay in Senegal where I truly felt frightened for my life.  To put this in true perspective, the dog looked like Cujo.  Its eyes glared at me with a definitive look as if to say, "I am NOT domesticated."


I would highly recommend visiting Saint Louis, Senegal for jazz festival because the town absolutely comes alive.  The only real surprise was how many people I knew from Dakar who had also made the trek up for the weekend; completely oblivious to anyone else making plans!

There was a street parade of musicians that definitely felt like a New Orleans march.  I was able to get a great view of the entire "old town" in a way that I probably never would have otherwise seen.  The old town is surrounded by rivers on either side that lead directly to the ocean.  If this place was clean, it would be one of the most picturesque areas I've ever traveled.  After the street parade, I grabbed a small bite to eat at a poolside patio restaurant that was featuring some local music.   A dancer came on stage, followed by a local artist who performed fire-breathing acts (up close!) for many of the guests.

Following that, I heard more music from a ferry boat that was docked on the riverside.  I made my way onto the boat and climbed up to the top deck level where I found an open bar, incredible food and some very smooth jazz musicians.  I learned that I had just crashed a private party, but was quickly introduced to the host of the event who welcomed me with open arms and made several introductions. 

With full belly, I meandered over to the concert - stopping to hear music, music, and more music coming from pubs, nightclubs and street corners.  The concert on Saturday night was good (not great), but the after-event parties were incredible.  Every bar in town featured some different type of music playing and was packed with festival goers.  Most of these people did not attend the concert; they were just in Saint Louis to soak up the atmostphere. 

I settled into the hottest, steamiest club in town.  I swear I was transported to Cuba as the band was playing a smoking set of Latino party music, complete with a horn section.  I would guess maximum occupancy was probably meant for 80 and there were at least 200 people in the place.  Everyone was dancing - because why not dance if you are going to sweat faster than the perspiration on your beer bottle.  The crowd was a mix of black and white.  The joint ran out of beer.  No one seemed to mind waiting while someone pried open the doors to the nearby beer store to help themselves to a late night delivery...

A quick footnote to the Sunday night feature concert.  The opener for Kenny Barron was the Mina Agossi Trio.  This band consisted of an Asian drummer who I kept thinking was the second coming of Mitch Mitchell.  The bassist blew me away with his combination of live play that he coupled with his own tracking loops.  And then there was Mina on vocals.  That was it.  It was the most stripped down sound I've heard since Morphine, yet it also sounded like 5 musicians on stage.  When they decided to cover Hendrix's 3rd Stone From the Sun (with great success, I might add), I felt like I was sent off to another planet.  This probably isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I would definitely catch this trio any time they play within a 250 mile radius (and the version I heard was better than the link below)

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