Making music in far flung places

Where are you?

I’m in Dakar, Senegal, which is on the westernmost tip of Africa. (see map) My husband in is working with the US Embassy, so we’re stationed here along with our 1 and ½ yr old son. We’ve been here just 4 months and expect to be here another couple of years. I’m a long-displaced Vermont-er so when mail service here resumes, I’m thinking of asking my folks to Fed-Ex some snow.

Can you give CS readers some general idea of what it’s like in Senegal?

People are generally friendly, save for a few young hotheads who make that finger-slashing-across-throat gesture, and some older folks avert their eyes, refusing to acknowledge foreign residents. For the most part though if you smile, people are friendly. However, if you don’t say hello first, you will probably get a lecture, at best.

The combination of the large non-governmental, international community and the embassies provide quite a few jobs, which helps keep relations friendly.

Herds of sheep and goats (which my son tags after) wander through the city and suburbs. Transportation runs the gamut: from “rapid transit” of overcrowded buses with people hanging off the sides, to horse carriages used for light hauling.¬ Working class Senegalese men and women, wearing flowing multi-colored caftans, often carry goods atop their heads. People who have work, work really hard. For shopping, there’s the occasional gas-station mini-mart, open air markets, and even some air-conditioned stores. There’s tons of construction going on around Dakar and even a cyber-café down the street.

Are trained voices like yours unusual in Senegal?

In developing nations classically trained voices are scarce. The choir here says there’s been some trained singers here before, but that their voices weren’t quite as sizable as mine. Neighbors say they enjoy hearing me, which is good, since in my neighborhood the houses are non-sound-proofed concrete. When I practice, people congregate on the street outside to listen.

I’m an all-around-soprano, C below middle C to E above high C but I’m a vocal gourmand; I’ve got a concert-song rep that spans over 20 languages now. I’ve been asked to sing everything from Porter to Puccini. However, I don’t sing aggressive coloratura and I don’t do anything that strains my throat.

I’ve sung in rice paddies in the harvest celebration in the middle of the night and sung with the Royal Thai Navy Orchestra the next week. By being flexible, I find I get more chances to sing.

Have you met other classical singers and musicians in Dakar?

There are quite a few community-level singers here. They’ve formed a loosely-knit “International Choir” which I’ve been asked to direct. My first performance with them is this year’s first installment of the “annual” Christmas Concert.

There are a few pianists here as well; an American with the missionary community, a Japanese one teaching at the University, and a Russian concert pianist. There’s even two orchestras whose members are from the Senegalese and French army bases here.

What opportunities to sing have you found or cultivated?

The American Ambassador is a wonderful woman and I’ve been invited to sing a solo Christmas concert at the residence. I should be able to meet all the musical decision-makers in the local “international community” at that event.

I’m also meeting with the director of the Orchestra and we’re hoping to organize some concerts. Benefits, most likely, as funds are very limited in emerging countries.

The Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francaise are both considering concerts after January 2002. There’s also interest from the Italian and Russian Embassies.

The nearest opera company is in South Africa, a couple hours by plane. If I can find enough singers, maybe we’ll do a community performance of La bohème here.

I’m also inquiring about singing for some schools.

How are you adding to your skills as a singer while you’re there?

One of the most interesting things I’m doing is I’m meeting with the local female Muslim mosque-“Cantor” to learn about her singing. The Muslim chanting style uses a nasal tonality, which could come in handy at some point. The cantors use very open throats with a really stiff tongue, but their chanting is noteworthy.

I’m also planning to travel south to a monastery where. they make gourd and skin harps which are used in daily religious practice. I’m hoping to learn some music there also.

I’m also establishing some contacts with the local pop singers to learn some Wolof songs. My ear training will come in handy as indigenous music is not always written down.

I’m grateful that my training as a singer helps me learn languages quickly, as it’s been immensely helpful in daily life. French and Wolof are the locally used languages, forget English!

This was printed in Classical Singer Magazine