PanAfrica host Jeff Spitzer-Resnick had the opportunity to interview Jenny Cathcart, author of “Notes from Africa-A Musical Journey with Youssou N’Dour.” The interview was broadcast previously. You can now listen to it and read a lightly edited (for clarity) transcript. This book is a genuine encyclopedia of African music, and African music audiophiles will surely want to read it.
JSR: Hi, this is Jeff Spitzer-Resnick here on PanAfrica, WORT 89.9 FM Madison and streaming as always at wortfm.org. I’m really pleased and honored to have Jenny Cathcart here in our virtual studio. Jenny’s the author of a book called “Notes from Africa, a Musical Journey with Youssou N’Dour.” Welcome, Jenny.
Jenny C: I’m so pleased to be on your show, Jeff.
JSR: Well, the pleasure is mutual. First of all, I hear an English accent and I think you’re from somewhere in Great Britain. Can you tell us where you’re sitting now as we’re recording this interview?
Jenny C: I’m in Northern Ireland in a place called Enniskillen, in beautiful Lakeland.
JSR: Beautiful. So, you wrote this interesting book featuring one of my favorite musical artists, Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, who we’re featuring in today’s show. But first let me just start off with the basic question, how on earth did you come to take this journey and then write this book?
Jenny C: It’s a story that goes back a long way. In fact, I was a researcher on a BBC series called “The Africans” way back in 1984, which is a long time ago. And because I spoke French, I went with the team to Dakar in Senegal. I’d never been in sub-Saharan Africa before. And when I arrived in this place at midnight, I woke up the next day and I just fell in love with the place.
I mean, it’s a beautiful city. It certainly was even more beautiful than it is now because it’s become more populous and crowded. But we were looking out at the sea and the local correspondent of the Times in London who lived in Dakar said “you must go and find what we call the Michael Jackson of Senegal, an amazing singer called Youssou N’Dour.” I was the one who was deputed to go and find him. So I jumped in a taxi and I was taken down to a kind of a coast road and I said, I’m looking for Youssou N’Dour. I had no idea where we were going, but we arrived at this spot. The taxi stops. And the driver says to me, he’s over there. And Youssou was sitting with some of his friends having tea, on the seashore. I approached them and I said “my name is Jenny and I’m looking for Youssou N’Dour” and the person turned around and said “I’m Youssou” and that was the beginning of a very long journey.
JSR: Wow. I have to tell you, and I do want you to go on, but I’ve seen that. It was a series of shows, right? The Africans, and really the emphasis, if I recall correctly, was the impact of colonialism throughout Africa.
Jenny C: Indeed it was. And the presenter was a wonderful gentleman from Kenya, Ali Masrui, who’s since passed away.
JSR: I did not know he passed away. Wasn’t he a professor at the University of Michigan here in the States?
Jenny C: He was indeed.
JSR: Yes, I remember it. I want to hear more from you, but there was a particular scene, I believe it was in the Sudan, of a pork slaughterhouse that convinced me to return to vegetarianism for the rest of my life.
Jenny C: Oh my goodness. I’m wondering if that wasn’t Senegal, actually.
JSR: But it was with Muslim workers basically slaughtering pigs for the Christians, not colonists from the first generation, but remainder colonists.
Jenny C: Yes, indeed. Wow. Isn’t that stunning?
JSR: Yeah, here we are meeting in this new way. So, Jenny, you met Youssou N’Dour and then did you start traveling with him or was this a trip later?
Jenny C: Well, the first thing was he said to me, come to my club on Sunday night. So the producer and I went along with the director, a wonderful director called Peter Bate. And he met us there and made us very welcome. And Peter said to me, we were listening to a song called Immigres which you might like to play on your show.
That was the first music we heard. And it was an amazing track, which became very popular in Senegal and around the world subsequently. And I just fell in love with the music. First of all, I fell in love over the place. And then I couldn’t imagine, I mean, I’d been brought up on Beethoven and the Beatles, but I’d never heard anything like that, but I knew it was amazing.
And it was a kind of golden period in 1984 for Youssou’s music because he had a tremendous band at the time. He had musicians, like a man called Adama Faye, who were very into jazz and were very open and eclectic in their tastes. So for me, that was an amazing time to arrive. And there’s another reason why it was so important, as well as that Paul Simon was busy working his Graceland album and opening up the world to musicians from Africa and other parts of the world, which suddenly became what we called world music or was labeled world music as a marketing tool more than anything else. So it was very timely. Everything seemed to slot into place.
JSR: Yes, I have a live disc from their tour in Athens with Peter Gabriel from around that time, wasn’t it?
Jenny C: Yes, indeed. And in fact, I tell it in my book. I went with Youssou when he recorded the track “In Your Eyes” for Peter Gabriel’s album in his studio at Real World. And I was with Youssou and Peter the morning they appeared on a breakfast TV show at the BBC.
Peter asked him to tour with him in America. Then I went to help Youssou to translate for interviews and stuff. We did a kind of one night stand tour to Cleveland and up into Toronto and Montreal and places like that. So, that was a big moment for Youssou.
So it really was the first time that he started touring with Peter, and then did various shows like the Human Rights Now tour, which was a big worldwide tour with Springsteen and Sting and Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel, of course.
JSR: We’ll play In Your Eyes off that live in Athens album. It’s a great, extended cut that they are together on. I’m wondering, as you toured around with Youssou N’Dour, are there other musicians who really took your fancy in any way?
I mean, you call your book a musical journey with Youssou N’Dour. The front cover has lots of other musicians listed. I’m curious whether there may be an interesting story or two of some of the other African musicians who you happened into along the way.
Jenny C: Oh, absolutely, because that started me on my own little tour. I was so taken with Youssou & his music, I went back to the BBC and I started working on a series called Rhythms of the World. Through that, I met so many musicians like Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure, from Benin-Angelique Kidjo, South African musicians, Khaled from North Africa.
I mean, there’s quite a list of them. Once I left Rhythms of the World, I then made one program called Africa’s Rock and Roll Years, which was like a look at Africa through its music from independence right up to 1995. That was a one-off program, but I went back 10 years later to the BBC. I’d been working with Youssou in Senegal but I went back and made six hour-long programs about African music in the same style that is just with commentary and music telling the stories of Africa and what was happening.
JSR: That’s fascinating, and we’ll definitely get to some of my favorite artists that you’ve just mentioned in this show-Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Angelique Kidjo. Salif says his last album was his very last, but we’ll see, we’ve heard many musical artists say that before. I kind of hope not.
Jenny C: Well, the classic album off Salif’s “Manjou,” I remember sitting in my flat in London listening for a whole weekend to that track over and over again, it was mesmerizing. And you know, you can go on from that. Largely, I think the work we did at the BBC was quite important because we gave a showcase, a television showcase to a lot of artists who were unknown, but who have subsequently become very well known even over there.
JSR: Yeah, it’s fantastic. And that’s actually on a smaller scale what we try to do here with our world music programming and this show PanAfrica here on WORT. I’ll ask you one last question, because we really haven’t talked that much about your book, Jenny. So you’ve talked all about your kind of video television career, but at some point, not that long ago, you decided “I’m going to turn this into a book.” Tell us how that went.
And you’re more than welcome to pitch why our listeners should go out and get a copy of your book and read it.
Jenny C: Well, funnily enough when I worked with Youssou in Dakar for three years and during which time I managed bands like Orchestra Baobab, I managed to get them all back together, after 15 years that they’d been apart. Youssou said to me one day, my record company is thinking of doing a retrospective of my work and I’d like you to write the sleeve notes. So I spent some time in Dakar and I met a lot of people, his friends and people who knew him more intimately. And I began putting together notes, which actually grew into this book.
And I, at the same time, had quite a lot of photographs that I’d taken over the years.
So the book now exists in a Kindle and e-book form with the photographs in color. In the paperback the photos are in black and white, but it can be bought in both formats on Amazon.
JSR: Well, Jenny, that just sounds fantastic. I am so glad that I found out about you and your book and we’ve had this opportunity to chat and I think our listeners will have learned a lot. I know I certainly did. And I wish you all the best in the future.
Any last words for our listeners, Jenny?
Jenny C: I just say, you know, go to Africa, hear the music on the spot, and there’s so much more arriving. Just you wait, you know, there’s an amazing mood of contemporary music like Afrobeats from Nigeria. There’s all kinds of energy, which unfortunately has been curtailed by COVID, but it’s going to explode very soon.
So just watch that space.
JSR: That sounds good. You know my wife and I were planning our own musical journey in Africa and then COVID hit. So we are waiting until after COVID and hopefully we’ll be able to do that. And you better be sure that I’m going to check in with you Jenny, before I do.
Jenny C: You do that Jeff, I’d love to help you.
JSR: Thank you so much. Take care, Jenny.