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Performing Blast at École des Sables in Senegal

BLAST poster
BLAST poster

I was lucky to go to Senegal recently to perform Blast, a piece by VEDANZA Luxembourg under the artistic direction of Emanuela Iacopini.

The original cast members of Blast are four of us, including Emanuela the choreographer, Frey Faust, Yuko Kominami and myself. Since its creation, Blast has been performed in Portugal, Luxembourg, Turkey and most recently in Senegal in April 2023.

Every time we perform it, it takes a slightly different form. The piece has many sections of structured improvisation which gives it a porous quality allowing artists to come in and out of the piece easily. The original music by Rajivan Ayyappan also has an open quality. Costume design is by Anmarie Herckes and lighting by Nico Tremblay.

In Senegal, we invited five new dance artists into the piece: Aimy Colle, Alicia Sebia Gomis and Latif Diedhiou from Senegal; Bonaventure Sossou from Benin and Kezia Jonah from Madagascar. Our original gang member Yuko couldn't make it, so we became a new company of eight for the Senegal rendition of Blast.

First day of rehearsals
First day of rehearsals

We were based in École des Sables which is a dance school situated in a village by the seaside called Toubab Dialaw. École des Sables was founded by legendary artist Germaine Acogny, and Helmut Vogt. Some call it a temple of dance.

Being in Senegal felt great. Good food, a lot of music and dance in the air, pleasant and friendly people, and great weather. The dance artists we collaborated with were intelligent and they took ownership of what they were doing. We all learnt from each other which made it a very worthwhile exchange on both parts.

We were told that the Senegalese society values family and its larger groupings which means they wouldn't allow foreign or extreme ideologies to come into their thinking of religion. This was reassuring to hear. Some dancers were fasting as it was the time of Ramadan.

On one occasion, I found myself on the second floor of a busy market in the Rufisque area. I heard incredible music from a shop across the street. I managed to find out what it was. It is the music of the Mouride Sufi Brotherhood located in Senegal and Gambia. The music reminded me of Qawwali singing from the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent which is also from a Sufi order.

Here is a video showing a similar chant:

It is very dry in many parts of Senegal. There are donkeys and horses and pulling carts with heavy loads. I noticed a lot of plants and trees that are similar to my homeland in Kerala, India. The milkweeds plant that we associate with Lord Shiva and his ceremonies seems to be growing a lot in Senegal and apparently it is also considered a sacred plant in Senegal which was a good surprise. They speak Wolof and French in Senegal.

The currency is West African CFA franc which is the currency used in eight independent West African countries, including Senegal. Euro is also in use. I found it difficult to exchange some British currency I had. I heard from a Gambian person I spoke to that France still has an iron grip on these West African countries which are ex-colonies. This means they will never allow a coup, and if there is any attempt, France will militarily intervene and crush the coup attempt as soon as it starts! I also heard that in terms of transition of power, Britain did a better job than France! I was confused hearing this as I think the Indian independence and the transition of power by the British was very disorderly.

I was curious how artists coped during the pandemic and lockdown. It was a struggle for many artists, I was told. The government support was minimal. Some made little singing groups and went around local restaurants and performed. This raised a bit of money for some.

One fellow dancer based in Senegal said whenever he toured in Europe, he saved all his salary to buy used German cars and shipped them over to West Africa. He sold them for much more money and that way he would triple his income! I find that very creative.

West Africa had a very crucial role in the slave trade. Its proximity to Europe and South America meant it was well positioned to be a holding centre for slaves to be sold and shipped out! Gorée island off the coast of Dakar was one such holding place; from the 15th to 19th century this was the largest trading center on the African coast. Many slaves were held there to be shipped off to Brazil and such places to work in the sugar plantations. It made me think of the Indians who worked in the tea plantations and in the British railway building projects in East Africa around the same time in history.

This is a slave trading centre in the island of Gorée
This is a slave trading centre in the island of Gorée

For my Masters dissertation, I had explored slave trade a little as a part of the research on human zoos. In the 18th, 19th and early part of the 20th century, there were human zoos in many European and American cities, and they were considered educational! They were called ethnological expositions, as well as sometimes being known as freak shows, featuring Hindu rope-dancers, Arabian camel-herders and Zulu warriors.

On the beach in Toubab Dialaw, I met a group of French Rastas, nomads as they called themselves, who are also musicians. They had driven from Marseille in their huge motorhomes and were driving around Africa. I went to one of their parties. They were jolly - drinking, eating and chatting a lot. I spoke to one of them who said he was an anarchist. He seemed pleased about saying this. He said in a strong French accent that anarchism means ‘no god or chief’ and that if he was in France right now he would take part in the protests and would be throwing petrol bombs at the police!

I had heard of the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar from a travel blogger. It caught my attention because it was built by a North Korean construction company! It's rare to hear news of activity undertaken by North Korea outside their country, I thought. I am aware that one of the exports of North Korea to Europe is construction workers who are called ‘state-sponsored slaves’ by some.

African Renaissance Monument designed by Senegalese architect, Pierre Goudiaby
African Renaissance Monument designed by Senegalese architect, Pierre Goudiaby

I was asked by the musician Rajivan Ayyappan to go and search out the home of Senegalese artist, Joe Ouakam aka Issa Samb.

Issa Samb 31 December 1945 - 25 April 2017
Issa Samb 31 December 1945 - 25 April 2017

A very colorful character, he used to be a regular visitor at the École des Sables, I was told. His residence was an artwork in itself. People used to visit him a lot in his residence - he was very charismatic. He had a stubbornness emanating from him yet he loved being photographed and filmed. I was hoping to go to his house to experience some of that energy, but sadly the house was destroyed! Did no-one care in the end? It made me question ideas of heritage and values!

Here is a documentary on Issa Samb...

I love this photo of a small restaurant in Dakar. I had the local food, thieboudienne. In this dish, there is fish, flavoured rice, carrot, tapioca, cabbage and aubergine.

I always love and dream of working in African countries. I have been to East Africa before. Working in Africa always reminds me of working in India. An entirely different approach to solving problems. Perhaps that is why these opportunities are important; to be exposed to each other's ways and learn from each other.

Here's a little video montage I put together; my memories...

And some more photos...

1) Gorée island

2) Local shop in Toubab Dialaw

3 & 4) Gorée island, after seeing the slave trade building

5) Restaurant

6) Street life. I spent some time chatting with them as I wanted some help with something. Lovely guys.

7) Waiting for my food.

8) Bargaining


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