When President Abdoulaye Wade, the embattled leader of Senegal, was in New York City in September for the United Nations Forum on Millennium Development Goals, he took a break from politicking to hold a press conference announcing the third World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures, a sprawling multidisciplinary confab that returned to the seaside city of Dakar in December, some four decades after Senegal’s first president, Négritude poet and scholar Léopold Sédar Senghor, conceived and presided over the first one. Wade described an event "shaped by the full African diaspora," a vision hinted at by the presence of the three artists on the podium with him: the festival’s artistic director, British-born actor-playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah; Akon, the R&B star of Senegalese descent; and Angelique Kidjo, the Benin-bred superstar who was a teenager when the second Black Arts Festival was held in 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria, home of the bandleader and funky politico Fela Kuti. Wade promised a mix of visual artists, intellectuals, musicians, dancers and fashion designers even larger and more geographically wide-ranging than the group Senghor had convened in Dakar in 1966, which included Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, future Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and choreographers Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham.
As momentous as the event’s press rollout ended up, the air in the room began to crackle when Wade, who is 84, revealed that during his student days he was an aspiring guitarist. When pressed on the subject, the head of state doubled the astonishment. Few in attendance could have expected the former law professor, whose victorious presidential campaign in 2000 was bolstered by a chorus of newly politicized Senegalese hip-hoppers, to start expounding on Beethoven and Tchaikovsky rather than, say, griot music or the homegrown Senegalese rock-style mbalax. (Mbalax was invented around the time Wade first ran for the presidency in the late 1970s, by Youssou N’Dour, the international pop star rumored to be contemplating a 2012 challenge to Wade.) Whatever his musical pleasure, Wade spoke as if his eclectic past made him some kind of everyman, even if the 160-foot-high monument to his leadership he recently had erected in Dakar, at an estimated cost of $27 million, suggests otherwise. The president smiled and wondered aloud why his onetime guitar obsession provoked such surprise. "In Senegal, we are all in some way musicians," he said in accented English, answering his own rhetorical question while alluding to the old saw about music’s central role in cultures throughout Africa.
The excitement generated by Wade’s reminiscence underscored something else: music often seems like one of Africa’s few points of light. The spirited sounds and rhythms that accompany ceremonies and parties as well as social struggles often provide relief from repressive politics. On a fairly regular basis, the news reaches the West via guitar chords, vocal chants or the beat of a talking drum. It’s the thread that connects FELA!, the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical devoted to the bandleader’s tortured life at the hands of Nigeria’s military government, to the plight of Zimbabwean freedom singer Thomas Mapfumo, who has been exiled in Eugene, Oregon, for the past decade, unable to set foot in former ally Robert Mugabe’s country since 2004. It’s apparent in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where years of war have dislodged from Kinshasa what was once Africa’s most popular and prolific music infrastructure, and it’s why there was exasperation but little surprise when fundamentalist factions in Somalia imposed a ban on music broadcasting in the spring. The political turmoil in Mogadishu also helps explain the checkered past of Somali MC K’naan, whose healing song "Wavin’ Flag" was the hit of the World Cup this past summer. Before rapping saved him from a career of crime, he had escaped the war in his country only to find himself a gangsta refugee kid in Toronto.