Every image we see of Africa in the American media is about famine, AIDS, or war. I had the chance to go to Senegal recently, with the rock stars Dave Matthews and Trey Anastasio. We found another Africa. We found one of the friendliest, happiest and most beautiful places on earth.
Heading out, I had no idea what to expect. I was going with a VH1 team to make a documentary about Dave and Trey's journey to play with Orchestra Baobab -- the legendary masters of Senegalese music.
Dave Matthews was raised in South Africa but he had never been to Senegal, the continent's westernmost point. When our plane arrived from America, I asked Dave how much further it was to where he grew up. He said, "From the USA, we're now about half way."
Matthews is probably the biggest concert draw in the United States. He regularly fills football stadiums. Trey Anastasio's band Phish are not far behind. They are the new century's version of the Grateful Dead. But Dave and Trey were unknown in Dakar, and they were genuinely humble in the presence of older musicians for whom they have such respect. They came as students and they worked hard at their lessons.
When Baobab invited them on stage to perform with them in front of an African audience, they were scared to death.
In the end it was a triumph.
We live in a moment in history when Americans think the world outside is a menacing place, full of people who hate us. It's good to find out that's not true. The people we met in Senegal had no idea who we were, but it didn't matter to them. They invited us into their homes, they shared what they had, they made us welcome.
We come from a culture enamored of celebrity, excited by stars. In Senegal, there is no barrier between performers and audience, between music and every day life. Music there is not something you buy. It's something you do. We went to Africa as students. I think what we learned there will last our whole lives.