Wonder, and A Tale of Two Cities

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


October 19, 2010

I have never seen as much collective body heat joyously united with as many collective smiles as I did on Saturday night—or technically Sunday morning. After several hours of audience anticipation, Youssou N’Dour at last graced the stage around 2:30 am. The floor immediately flooded with fans elated to witness an intimate performance by perhaps the most famous living singer in Senegal and much of Africa.

The audience and the band are one thriving, breathing, authentic organism. Every bass groove is mimicked by the drummer and the chorus of guitars and synthesizers laugh along like old friends. A handful of musicians beat traditional drums in a synchronous explosion of syncopation so complex and overwhelming that even the most seasoned jazz musician would feel faint. Youssou N’Dour strolls and preaches from his lyrical pulpit using a voice that is at once refined and untamed to tell melodic tales that praise the very souls from which such wonder abounds. The crowd responds and chants along, sometimes to the point that Youssou N’Dour need not sing at all.

Only the physical energy of the space rivals the electric musical power. Women sporting colorful outfits of more formality join those dressed for the club scene and dance as if they will never dance again. Every individual in the crowd expresses his or her begay—a Wolof word roughly translating to “happiness” and used in popular slang—through perpetual movements of every sort. Not a body leaves the concert without beads of sweat literally dripping from forehead or chin onto hyper-saturated shirt. It is mystifying in its authenticity and wondrous in its mysticism.

As I stepped into the shower around 5:30 am—while only a few buildings away the first allah-hu-akbar’s of the day gilded the megaphones of the mosque—I remembered a story my Wolof teacher, Abdou, had told in a recent class. One of his eldest sons, 21 years of age, had been trying to leave Senegal for approximately two years to escape an environment of unemployment. Though Abdou had repeatedly blocked his son’s exodus, his son at last crossed the border illicitly into Mauritania. From there he continued to trek north, traversing the brutal Western Sahara Desert with several other youths. In Morocco he was detained by authorities that, rather than deporting him, dropped him and his fellow illegal immigrants in the desert near the border with Algeria. Abdou’s son walked the perilous dunes for three days to return to a civilization as welcoming to him as the wasteland itself.

On the final leg of the journey Abdou’s son took a small boat across the tempestuous, shark-infested waters of the Strait of Gibraltar, a risky trip on which, according to Abdou, tens of thousands of young Senegalese and others have drowned as they seek opportunity in Spain. Lucky to not be one of those left for dead in the endless waves, Abdou’s son reached the Iberian Peninsula unharmed, only to be detained by the Red Cross, which provides medical examinations to the illicit immigrants and releases those who are healthy so that they may continue to search for work in the fields.

The obvious juxtapositions between the experiences of the audience at Youssou N’Dour’s triumphant concert and those of Abdou’s son as he completed his startling quest are compelling enough without intrusive analysis or naïve judgment on my part. Still, I wonder if the bliss in life felt by Abdou’s 21-year-old son upon reaching the shores of “safety” was at all similar to that begay of the music lovers in Dakar, or whether it was deeper, both tainted by grief and amplified by mortal transcendence.

I wonder. Abdou has not heard from his son since he was taken in by the Red Cross, and I wonder when he will. I wonder if his son will find work in Spain and I wonder if he will return home to Senegal and I wonder if any of Abdou’s other children will depart in such a traumatic manner. I wonder how many families never saw brothers, sons, and grandsons again because they could escape their countries but not the oven of the desert, the butt of the rifle, or the crushing depths of the sea. I wonder how many more will try. And I wonder if it is possible that I will ever comprehend the birthright of my new home: uncertainty, duality, and wonder beyond resolution.

Gus Ruchman