Thierno Koite’s memories of Dakar in the 1960s and 1970s are extremely vivid, “I remember falling asleep on the speakers in various clubs in Dakar as Afro-Cuban music played. At that time, I was a young boy, but I would attend my cousin’s and brother’s rehearsals.”
His cousin Issa Cissohko and his brother Moundaga Koite were part of the founding group of the legendary Afro-Cuban band – Orchestra Baobab. He would eventually join the group as an alto saxophonist when he came of age.
“Dakar was where everyone came to make music,” says the septuagenarian. “There was the Liberian musician [Dexter Johnson] one of the members of Star Band of Dakar—the best known Afro-Cuban band in Senegal founded in 1958. There was Barthélémy Attisso who at the time was a Togolese student at the University of Dakar and a guitarist for the Star Band and Orchestra Baobab.”
Thierno reminisces about a time when Dakar was the capital of French West Africa, attracting people from other African countries and from across the diaspora, Malians, Maghrebis, Beninoises, Cubans—everyone bringing their unique musical influence with them.
Music and revolution
While quite a few groups dominated the scene, none was better known than Star Band de Dakar which introduced some of the country’s most legendary musicians including Grammy Award winning artist, Youssou N’Dour. The band’s entire repertoire was Afro-Cuban—a testament to the anti-imperialist ideals of Cuba and the impact it was having in a country that was trying to free itself from colonial rule and the post-colonial sensibilities that came with it.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution brought with it the ambition by Fidel Castro and his administration to aid African nations in the fight against imperialism. He developed diplomatic ties with newly independent African nations—sending professionals (doctors, teachers), aid workers and diplomats to various African countries in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1978, there were approximately 11,000 Cuban citizens living in Sub-Saharan Africa, and also Cuban bands touring the continent.
For the youth at the time, Cuban music offered an opportunity to portray a cosmopolitan way of life, but one that wasn’t built on the French ideas of progress. Rather it was based on their camaraderie with Cuba, a revolutionary country that proudly identified with its black roots and was considered a modern post-colonial society that Senegalese people could look up to as a model.
This music grew and thrived in Medina, the native quarters of Dakar at the time. It found a home in clubs such as Le Miami, a nightclub where Star Club recorded their entire catalog. Sahel was another nightclub that was home to The Sahel Orchestra – another well-known Afro-cuban jazz group of which Thierno Koite is still part of. It was here where they released an Afro-cuban album called Bamba in mid 1970s that was so popular that it cemented Sahel Club’s place as a place that would attract young musicians from all over Dakar looking to experiment with various latin inspired genres.