If all had gone according to plan, singer-songwriter Baaba Maal’s move to Senegal’s capital from the northern hinterlands would have ended differently – specifically with a law degree. “When I first came to Dakar, I had to study at the university because that was my parents’ wish,” he said, as two sculptures, as if on cue, looked sternly at him.
I met Mr. Maal — “the voice of Wakanda” to fans who know him from the Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtracks — at the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar. As we toured the galleries, he explained that he loved the place because of its efforts to bring back looted African treasures to the country and its power to “get young people interested in art.” Now 70, he recalled that he himself was an artistic young man. “What was really, deeply strong in me – namely to be a singer, to be a performer – came out when I got to Dakar,” he said. “If I wanted to be an artist, I said, ‘This is where I’m going to start a career.'”
So, his parents’ plan happened, but his own worked out well. Just this year, he released his 14th studio album, Being, to critical acclaim, became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification—an extension of the work of his non-profit organization Nann-K— and began preparations for its arts and culture Blues du Fleuve festival in early December. Although he still travels frequently, he said: “I’ve always wanted Dakar to be where I start my work, prepare for my tours – and come back.”
The appeal was clear. Since moving to Dakar, the city has hosted renowned biennales and fashion weeks. And just the small stretch of street where we stood included not only the museum, but also the Grand Théâtre National and the restored Art Nouveau railway station. “It’s a new dynamic,” he said, pointing to a venue where hip-hop artists now draw thousands of young people to outdoor performances. Enjoying the energy, he added: “I often pass by here, open the car window, look at the people getting off the train and say to myself: ‘Yes, this is the Senegal I want to see.’
Here are five of his favorite places in and around Dakar.
1. National Theater Daniel Sorano
“I like to see the tradition alive,” said Mr. Maal of the theater, opened in 1965 by Senegal’s first president, the poet-philosopher Léopold Sédar Senghor. “And the tradition is still there – the national ballet, the lyrical ensemble, a lot of traditional African music.” He also loves the soul of the theatre: “You can see the portraits of all the artists who died a long time ago and who represent a lot to the Senegalese people. “
Sports fan or not, any music lover will enjoy a match at this football and wrestling stadium, where singing and drumming accompany the action. Mr. Maal has a special fondness for wrestling, the national sport. “It’s not just the sport itself; it’s the dramas, the singers, the costumes – the whole culture around wrestling,” he said. Amadou Barry is also a music venue where Mr. Maal is a beloved veteran performer. You may need a guide to visit this suburban stadium.
“When friends come over, this is their favorite place to stay,” Mr. Maal said of this dreamy hotel — all thatched domes, mosaic arches and flowering bougainvillea — in the suburb of Toubab Dialaw, about an hour outside Dakar, where the tranquil views to the ocean and city lights inspired his iconic song “Dakar Moon”. He also recommends the nearby École des Sables African Dance Institute, where anyone can attend the performances at the end of each multi-week session.
4. Soumbedioune Fishing Beach and Market
As much as Mr Maal is an artist by birth, he said: “I am a fisherman.” And his favorite local connection to those roots is Sumbediun, where the beach and market are “full of life and noise and energy – with all the boats, who leave early in the morning, the young men take them out of the ocean and the women wait for you to sell the fish in the markets.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s owned by a friend who likes to feed people,” Mr. Maal said of this restaurant, which is part of a colonial mansion-turned-hotel on Gorre Island, 25 minutes off the coast. His song “Fatmata” is dedicated to the owner, whose cuisine thieboudienne (fish, herb tomato sauce and rice), kaldou (fish with garlic and rice) and c’est bon (grilled fish and seafood with onion sauce) are his favorites . And the UNESCO-listed Gorée Island, surrounded by aquamarine waters, is considered a must-see for any visitor, as is its Maison des Esclaves, a testament to the horrors of slavery. Although the island’s beauty and brutality feel at odds, according to Mr. Maal, you can “go through very difficult, very sad experiences to see that in the end there is hope, there is light, and we can build something from this .”