That night we sucked greedily on prawns and fish. Our host was clearly of some fair repute in the region, as older French people, with their nose for a good meal, piled into the rough shack from God knows where to share in the finger licking fun. This was some traditional culture we could get whole-heartedly involved with, though when we asked if there was any palm wine available after the meal, our hosts thought it was hilarious that a Westerner should want to drink such a thing.
Oussouye was fascinating, but it also felt quite closed to tourists. I think if you spent some time here you could start to make friends and peer beneath the surface, but as it was, it felt like a fleeting glimpse of something that remained tantalisingly out of reach. Clearly there was a Jola identity that hadn't been entirely subsumed by Western ideals and smart phones, but to fully understand it would take far longer than a flying visit. Still, it motivated us to head to the more traditional beach at Kafountine rather than the resort of Cap Skiring.
Kafountine was a traditional fishing village with miles of untouched beaches. This had led to lots of little campements opening along the coast. Ours was a perfect little compound run by a French artist. She tended the explosions of pink and red flowers fag in hand, and cooked us French wonders using local ingredients. This we would eat sat on sculptured furniture before taking the time to lounge in hammocks, digesting and watching birds frolic in the bird baths. We had our own little toukul, or thatched roundhouse, to retire to when the sun got a bit too bolshy, and it was but a short wander down sandy lanes, past what seemed to be a permanent football match, before we reached the beach.
We had met them as they sat round a fire on the beach, drumming. Sometimes I felt that all the drum circles advertised up and down the coast of West Africa were a bit tourist driven and over the top, but these guys were playing for their pleasure alone. They invited us to join in the singing and dancing. Kicking up African sand under a full moon to a range of rhythms and the deep bass of the ocean should be prescribed on the NHS as rejuvenative for the soul. The eternal blue of the sea becomes gilded in silver by the moon, and as the poly-rhythms pounded we spun circles in the sand, our spirits soaring heavenwards alongside the sparks from the bonfire.
I had forgotten that we were to be out here for the prophet's birthday, but one night after dinner a great singing went up that could be heard around the whole village. When I've experienced the prophet's birthday in Egypt there were great street processions and flag waving, but here it was far more solemn. The heads of the brotherhoods were sat in their finery, unflinching, on a raised platform under fluorescent lights. Occasionally someone would approach to pay their respects, but little was said, or could be presumably heard over the endless lament they were broadcasting out over the whole of Kafountine. It was otherworldly, yet bathos was provided among the little children who were meant to be sitting cross legged and austere, but who couldn't help frolicking and bringing a little joy to the situation.
After raising a sunset beer to Soph in our favourite restaurant (the staff worriedly asked me if my wife was fine), I headed somewhere a little less salubrious for dinner. Whilst the food was generally great everywhere, I found less French influence in the cheaper places. Indeed, the best meal I'd had had been in a shack for fishermen down by the fish drying racks in Kafountine. Whilst eyes had popped when we'd walked in, everyone was welcoming and happy to serve us the one item on the menu for a few francs. The menu was slightly more extensive and expensive here, but to my pleasure a guitarist wandered in and started playing loose interpretations of popular hits. See if you can guess what he's playing in the video to the right (there's not much to see, apart from the polychromal decor, so you might want to have it as background whilst reading the rest of the post).
I think it's fair to say that their ballet is a little more, energetic, than that on offer in the West. Drummers pounded, old men wailed terribly off-key, women ululated and sang choruses, whilst the dancers span and stomped their feet, flailing their arms in practised spasticity. Soloists would body-pop, before things got really hectic and the gymnastics started. At one point someone dressed as some kind of archetype put on a bit of a show before flipping and tumbling for the audiences pleasure. It was a real joy to behold. Again, I apologise for the video being dark - this is the last one before I worked out how to resolve that - but after 2 minutes the soloists come down into the bright lights and it gets a little more interesting anyway.
I was also lucky to have met a fascinating American girl as I embarked. Kathryn had written articles and made documentaries about Malian music, and divided her time between Dakar and Berlin, peppering her enthusiastic chatter with outbursts in German and Wolof. We stood on the top deck as we sailed down the wide Casamance and watched dolphins dance in the bow waves, the sun setting behind us. I had never seen so many dolphins at once, as pod after pod would come and jump friskily in the golden waves. As we turned to the open sea they finally left us, and as the waves started to grow in stature and we seemed to move more vertically than horizontally, more than half the passengers seemed to break out in sweats and had to lie down. It was a good time to count your blessings if seasickness were not a personal affliction. Dinner was rather unsubscribed for such a large ship, and it made sense to keep your glass more than half empty if you didn't want it to scale the sides.
I settled down for the night and looked forward to what the North would have to offer...