Lionel Mandeix

31 mars 2013

The Songs of Senegal


Published: December 6, 2009

That night, my quest to discover some of Dakar’s newer music takes me to Villa Krystal, the most

recent challenger to established spots like Thiossane and Just4U — and maybe the least expected.

Opened in January by two French expatriates with no background in live music, the red livingroom-

like space was originally intended to give Dakar a restaurant “where we might actually want

to eat,” says Lionel Mandeix, a co-owner and former ad man, with a laugh as he toys with his

iPhone in the velvety dining area.

For the first five months, Villa Krystal’s musical programming — basically evenings when

customers played a name-that-tune game — played second fiddle to the foie gras, rabbit in mustard

sauce and other Gallic dishes. Everything changed when Dakar’s annual Fête de la Musique, a

citywide festival, arrived in June. For Mr. Mandeix and his partner, Thomas Cazenave, a onetime

banker, the dynamism of Dakar’s music scene was astonishing.

“We said to ourselves, ‘This place is really happening!’ ” Mr. Mandeix recalls.

The pair began booking bands and singers, but they were not interested in making yet another

mainstream mbalax club. Instead, they have created a home to cultivate younger artists like

Njaaya, a young local Afrogroove singer, and Naby, a Senegalese reggae artist who won this year’s

Discovery Prize from the international French radio powerhouse RFI.

“We’re trying to open the range of music to include genres like hip-hop, folk and jazz,” Mr.

Mandeix says.

On this night, however, the star attraction is Cheikh Lô, a longtime local favorite. Sporting huge

sunglasses and waist-length dreadlocks, the skinny singer-guitarist sits with his unplugged band

and plucks out his trademark mellow mbalax lite.