OUAGANDOUGOU, Burkina Faso – Finding your way around Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, should be easy to do. Wide, ramshackle boulevards radiate from plazas and monuments — this is French Africa, after all — and even the hovel-lined dirt alleys are organized into a relentless grid. Buzzards perch on top of the street lamps that line the avenues, making you feel, as you drive down the street, like a float in a creepy parade.
The trouble starts at night. The milky layer of wood smoke and dust that during the day creates a bustling charm, at night becomes a vaguely alarming, eye-watering fog. And forget the street lamps. The best they'll do is flicker. So if you're driving around the city in a taxi, as I was, with an address in your pocket for a place you were told showcases live music and cold beer, be prepared to drive around awhile.
My friends and I wanted to hear some music and drink some beer because we wanted to chill a bit, after the previous night's exorcism.
Correct. An exorcism. We had spent the first part of the week in a remote village. Apparently, a week or so before we were there, a young girl from the village had been possessed by demons, and the village turned out that night to chant, sing, drum, and generally mill around the blindfolded girl, who sat in the center a circle of other chanting, singing village girls. It was a party atmosphere. A spooky, party atmosphere.
We stood along the edge of the circle, nodding respectfully at the unfolding event. Even with a full moon, the Saharan sky is spangled with stars, so we could easily make out the stricken girl swaying and weaving to the drums. And, as long as you didn't include the battered Toyota Land Cruiser in your field of vision, it could have been a sight from any time in the past 400 years. You could just as easily have been a French explorer from the 19th century, trudging across the desert towards Lake Chad.
So the next day, we arrive in Ouagadougou and want a more contemporary experience. We get to the address we've been given and find a small shed with four old men sitting outside by a camp stove. No music here, we're told. For music, we need to go a few streets over.
Which we do, but by that time it's pretty late — too late to really settle for recorded music, which is what we find at the next spot. But manning the DJ booth is a young man in a T-shirt extolling the virtues of Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso. President Compaore gives out T-shirts during election season, and this one, emblazoned with his face and a snappy slogan — "Blaise Compaore! Le choix des jeunes" — you see all over. Undeterred, we march over to the DJ booth and ask the kid where we can hear live African music. He looks at us for a second and says, "I know where. I'll take you." And with that, he abandons his post at the turntables, shuts the music off mid-beat, hustles us through the crowd of (confused, disappointed) dancers, and leads us again through the streets of Ouagadougou.
We find music. Great, live, African music, washed down by cold African beer. There's dancing, international friendship, and laughter. The next day, when I describe the events to French businessman who lives part of the year in Burkina Faso, he laughs.
"So you were going to one place, then to another, and then to a third place which wasn't where you wanted to go originally, but you had fun?"
"Then, my friend, you had a perfectly African evening."