Dakar's Assault to the Senses: Youssou N'Dour on Senegal's Capital

05/14/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

"Music, like football, is in every Senegalese's heart" the legendary musician, Youssou N'Dour tells me, and in Dakar the air is indeed filled with music. Everywhere you go you hear snatches of the distinctive mbalax sound which fuses African and Cuban rhythms with rock, funk and reggae. It pumps from bars and cafes, from taxis and buses, from market stalls and shady courtyards. N'Dour who pioneered the mbalax sound, believes the reason that Senegal in general and Dakar in particular produces so many talented musicians is down to culture. Music in West Africa music has always been a means to impart knowledge and carrying history across generations but in Dakar it has become more than that. "Music gives hope to young people" explains N'Dour. "They see someone like me who grew up in the Medina but through music, has been able to succeed internationally."

Although N'Dour has connections to the traditional griot caste of musical storytellers his musical influences were much more broad. Born in Dakar's Medina quarter, a vibrant but poor working class area in the city centre, N'Dour was raised there by his grandmother until he was twenty. Despite his success, N'Dour - winner of two Grammy awards - still lives in Dakar and loves the place so much that he never leaves for more than a week. "Even when I'm on tour, if there is a two day break in the schedule, I take a plane back to spend a day with my wife and kids" he says. N'Dour is very much involved in Dakar's cultural and political life owning a newspaper, a radio station as well as the famous Thiossane night-club in which he performs every Saturday's night. "I finish playing at around 4.30am" says N'Dour. "I then usually try to round up some friends and go to one of my favourite bakeries, the Patisserie de la Medina, for breakfast. Then I go home to bed."

Colourful and chaotic, noisy and pulsating, Dakar is a city that assaults your senses and nourishes your soul. Situated on the westernmost point of the African continent it is a modern city unique in its vibrancy, its food and its nightlife. Indeed in few other cities could one spend a day wandering through labyrinthine markets, take in extraordinary history and architecture, swim in clear blue seas and round off the day by watching top class live music over a sumptuous dinner.

The city was originally founded in 1444 by Portuguese sailors who built a small settlement on Gorée, a picturesque island 2 miles off the coast. In 1588 Gorée island was captured by the Dutch and then by the French. For the following three centuries control of the island was fiercely disputed as Imperial powers fought to use Gorée as a trading depot from which to export the bounty from Africa's interior - gold, skins, gum Arabic and slaves. It not until 1857 under French rule that the mainland was finally settled.

Over the years Dakar grew to be one of the major cities of the French Empire and became the capital of French West Africa, which included nine Francophone states. The colonisers constructed beautiful tree-lined avenues and boulevards as well as elegant colonial buildings. When, in 1960 Senegal gained independence the legacy of three centuries of French colonial rule was left behind and can be found in the architecture, the food and in the atmosphere which is perhaps the most European of any city on the continent.

Despite the sprouting of some high rise blocks and contemporary buildings the grid-layout of the city centre has remained unchanged since its colonial heyday. The central area is easily explored on foot and there are many interesting sights throughout the city as well as plenty of cafe terraces to relax in. As well as treading the busy streets you can also take a walk beside the ocean. Particularly recommended is a stroll along the Western Corniche, one of the most romantic avenues of Dakar, with its cliff-top views of the Atlantic.

Situated on the tip of the Cap Vert Peninsula, the Dakar boasts luxurious hotels, a wide range of restaurants, beaches and water sports, casinos and an active nightlife. The climate in Dakar is fresh and avoids the worst of the hot and humid weather thanks to the fact that it is located a promontory surrounded by sea. Dakar is a natural harbour and is also one of the busiest ports for cruise ships in Africa. Being such a cosmopolitan city does however comes with a few down sides. Dakar is among the most expensive cities in Western Africa and crime rates are high.

Despite this Guy Lankaster, a British actor-turned-tour-guide who spends a great deal of time in the city believes that people should not believe everything they may have read. "Dakar has a bit of a reputation for being dangerous but that's because it's one of the biggest urban centres in West Africa" he says. "Compared to Bamako or Nouakchott it has what I would call a harder nose. Tourists might get hassled occasionally but the most that is likely to happen to them is that they are persuaded to buy things that they later realise they don't need."

Lankaster who once trod the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company and now runs the bespoke tour company From Here 2 Timbuktu also argues that living like a king in Dakar need not cost the earth. "I remember one time I told my tour group that I would be taking them to dine at the best restaurant in Dakar" he recalls. "That evening they all turned up dressed in their smartest outfits. I led them up Rue Moussou Diop and then down an alleyway into a compound which didn't even have a sign outside. We sat down at a wobbly table on up-turned buckets and were served Tiop Bou Djene (Senegal's famous dish). The people on my tour unanimously agreed that it was the best fish that they'd ever tasted."

The beach provides a pleasant respite from the bustle of Dakar and is itself a fascinating place to watch the world go by. Fishing boats come and go, locals play volleyball with the tourists and people relax in restaurants along the seafront. There are wooden ferries which go from the beach to Isle N'gor a 5 minute ride away. Once on the island you are really away from the noise of Dakar. The sandy beaches - there are two - are lined with small stalls where mama's will cajole you in to eat their freshly caught and freshly cooked fish. Behind the beach is a small village which is home to a number of Dakar's artist community. The alleyways thread you through the houses, graffiti art mixes with strange sculptures and installations. Peek over a wall to see the artists at work - or more likely resting or chatting with friends. All of a sudden drumming can be heard. Follow the beat and join in a jamming session.

Gorée is the spiritual focus for millions of African-Americans and West Indians who trace their lineage back to West Africa. Now a UNESCO Historical Monument, this tiny island has become central in African Diaspora history as the embarkation point for slaves leaving the Senegambia destined for the plantations in the New World. Between 1513 and the end of the 19th century when the slave trade ended, some 24 million people were shipped to the Americas by English, Portuguese, French and Dutch traders. An estimated 20 percent died on the journey.

Despite its spiritual and symbolic significance, Gorée was not a major slaving departure point. In reality most slaves were transported from larger centres such as St Louis or Gambia. Nevertheless there is no doubt the several thousand slaves were locked up on this idyllic island before stepping through the 'Door of no Return' onto slave ships.

Some buildings, once used as slave houses, have been turned into historic sites, most famously 'La Maison des Enclaves'. From the outside these faded buildings covered in bougainvillea look benign but inside, the shackles and chains bear testament to the horrors that took place between by their ochre walls.

As well as music, Dakar has a very rich cultural life and there is an abundance of galleries, artists' studios and museums. Every February Dakar hosts Kaay Fecc, an international dance festival for traditional and contemporary African movement and choreography. Walking the streets your eye is constantly caught by artwork in unusual places from intricately painted buses to striking murals on the walls. But Dakar does not just do street art. Every two years the city plays host to a month long international art show: the Dak'art Biennale. Held from May to 7 June, Dak'art features prominently on the international cultural calendar and is the largest gathering of contemporary African artists on the continent. When it was founded by Senegalese artists in 1992 with support from the Senegalese state, it was intended as an international exhibition and although it still includes artwork by Africans in the Diaspora, it is now predominantly a pan-African event serving as a meeting place for artists from across Africa. Dak'art also boasts an extensive fringe festival which mushrooms across the city.

For a first time visitor Dakar's cacophonous four lane highways, buzzing street markets and exuberant nightlife might leave them feeling a little dizzy and discombobulated, but this would not be anything new. According to an apocryphal Wolof legend even the name 'Senegal' derived from the confusion of a first-time visitor. A western explorer, so the story goes, reached the banks of the river Niger and pointing to it, asked a local fisherman what it was called. Misreading the direction of the explorer's index finger the fisherman replied "Li sunu gal": "that's our boat".

Y'oussou N'Dour has witnessed a great deal of development in Dakar over the decades "There are a lot of new buildings and some new monuments along the Corniche" he says. "But the essential ambiance of Dakar has remained the same". But be warned, that ambiance - the smells, the tastes, and the sounds of Dakar - are highly and dangerously addictive.