NI author recalls how meeting 'the Michael Jackson of Africa' led to a lifelong love of the continent's music

Jenny Cathcart new book chronicles the rise of modern African music through accounts of her colourful career working with its biggest stars

In October 1984 when Jenny Cathcart set out with a BBC TV film crew on her first visit to Africa she could not have imagined, nor did she suspect, the extent to which Senegal, a former French colony on the westernmost tip of the continent, was about to work its seductive charms on her.

The moment she arrived in the sun-kissed sea port of Dakar she fell under the spell of the Senegalese Teranga, the equivalent of our Irish Céad Mile Failte. So evident was this to her BBC colleagues that they began to refer to the country as Jenegal, not Senegal.

The 24 year old singer they called 'the Michael Jackson of Africa', whom Cathcart met on that first visit, is now Africa’s best known musician, a multi millionaire, a leading businessman and one time presidential candidate. He performed at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall on August 31, a concert which was then transmitted on BBC 4 on September 7.

Youssou N’Dour, who is probably best known here for 'Seven Seconds', his chart topping duet with Neneh Cherry, introduced Cathcart, who had been brought up on Beethoven and The Beatles, to African popular music. Through him and her subsequent work as a producer of TV programmes for the BBC series Rhythms of the World, she came to know leading musicians from all over the African continent.

Having lived in Senegal for three years and through her work as a manager of leading groups, including Orchestra Baobab and Cheikh Lo, Cathcart came to appreciate the importance of music as a vehicle for social commentary, cohesion and change. As ‘World Music’ gained popularity, she accompanied African musicians to recording sessions in Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio or on tours to Europe and the USA. She met stars like Stevie Wonder with whom she spent a day in LA. She was invited to lunch with Sting and his wife Trudi Styler in their London home and sat opposite Bruce Springsteen on a bus that was ferrying artists to a press conference at Wembley.

Back home in Fermanagh, Cathcart brought four African and four top Irish musicians to Lusty Beg island in Lough Erne to collaborate on a project called Senegal to Donegal. They presented their work at two memorable public concerts in Lisnaskea and Enniskillen.

Senegal to Donegal (John McVitty)

Senegal to Donegal (photo by John McVitty)

Notes From Africa covers the rise of African popular music over recent decades with portraits of its best known stars. The book has been described by musician Wally Badarou (Benin/France) as 'a well documented personal journey, an excellent read, that will serve as a reference for many.' Lavishly illustrated with vivid images, it affords glimpses into everyday life in Africa and will be of interest to travellers, music fans and all those who are drawn to the exuberance, colour and creativity of Africa.

Jenny Cathcart will be in conversation with Carlo Gebler about Notes From Africa at the Buttermarket, Enniskillen at 7pm on Thursday October 4, as part of the Fermanagh Live Arts Festival. For more information visit http://www.flive.org.uk/.

You can support the book's released through crowd-funding publisher Unbound by pledging at https://unbound.com/books/notes-from-africa/.

51 Auteur avec Ali Farka Toure