Youssou N'Dour rose to international fame with the support of an Englishman, Peter Gabriel, and his biggest worldwide hit, 7 Seconds, was a duet with London-based Neneh Cherry, so perhaps it's no surprise that he has a soft spot for Britain. When I met him at his studio in a break from recording his latest album, I mentioned I'd flown to Dakar on the inaugural direct flight from London - he was so interested he demanded the telephone number of the local agent. When I added that my flight home took off at the ungodly hour of 4.15am Sunday morning, his usually serious face broadened into a huge smile. "That's the perfect time for me," he said. "If I start my Saturday night show a little early I could jump on the flight to London right after I come off stage."
He's not kidding. Dakar's nightclub and live music scene is buzzing but, like an African Madrid, nothing kicks off until the small hours. Youssou's advice to visitors is "Make sure you get here on a Friday as all the best music is at the weekend - and get plenty of sleep because we don't get going until 2am."
Sure enough, the night I saw him perform he came on stage at his own Thiossane nightclub at 2.30am. It was worth the wait. The 10-piece band were tighter than a djemba drum, playing simmering mbalax, the pulsating urban rhythm created in Dakar in the 70s and popularised worldwide by N'Dour. And hearing his unmistakable, perfect voice live was a revelation: fl owing like liquid gold in the harmonies before surging to thunderous crescendos that forced the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end.
But what made it so special for me was seeing him here on home soil, in a small, sweaty Dakar club - rather than, say, the sober surroundings of the Barbican in London - with a local crowd, all clearly in love with him, singing along to every word, the women dancing in a way that would make a Brazilian samba dancer look restrained. By the end of the show, a few of the crowd had jumped on stage to embrace and dance with their hero.
Youssou (no second name required) is the most famous man in Senegal, one of the kings of world music and a millionaire several times over, but every Saturday night you can find him on stage at the Thiossane, just as he has been for the last two decades. I felt privileged to see him here, but why is he still doing it?
"It's partly to give something back, and so that the Senegalese people can feel part of what I'm doing," he said, "but also because I need their energy. The connection between us is really special. I still feel my roots here, my music needs Senegal. That's why I've never left here to live in Europe."
Youssou isn't the only one of Senegal's world music stars to play regularly in Dakar. On any given weekend you can catch the likes of Orchestra Baobab, Thioné Seck (who also has his own club), Cheik Lô and Viviane N'Dour, Youssou's sister-in-law, in the capital's many clubs.
But where should I go to see up-and-coming musicians? He puffed out his cheeks in a "how long have you got?" expression. "There's so much happening musically all over Senegal right now, but you can see it all in Dakar. The hip hop community is one of the most exciting in Africa; there are around a thousand rap bands in Senegal and they're developing an African sound, rather than copying America. Like me, they sing in Wolof, our native language, which has a great rhythm for rapping. If you can, try to catch Duggy Tee, Awadi and Daara J."
To find out who is playing, pick up a copy of the listings magazine Le 221 or ask around. Remember not to go out before midnight, and wear your flashiest clobber - otherwise you'll feel underdressed next to the glammed up locals. And don't be put off by the mad taxi drivers or by the imagined dangers of walking around dimly-lit streets in the middle of the night - even though I speak a barely a word of French, I felt safe the whole time I was in Senegal.
It's worth coming to Dakar for the music alone, and it's great fun in that frenetic, haggling-for-your-life-in-the-market kind of way (don't miss the medina and, if you have the time and bargaining skills, the Marché des HLM which sells beautiful fabrics from all over west Africa). But it's good to have a bolthole. The new Hôtel Sokhaman on the ocean provided a welcome retreat from the heat. It was a pleasant surprise to find a boutique- style hotel with striking African design in downtown Dakar - the trendy staples like raw concrete walls and sumptuous sofas are decked out in brilliant African colours and local materials. But even staying here, after a weekend of partying I was ready to leave the city.
The nearest and one of the most interesting escapes is only a 20-minute ferry ride away. Gorée is a small car-free island of sandy alleys trailing with bougainvillea and some fine colonial architecture. Lunch of excellent fresh fish at the Hostellerie du Chevalier de Boufflers overlooking the island's beach and harbour was so relaxing it was hard to believe that Dakar was so close. The easy charm of the pretty terracotta building extended to the hostellerie's five rooms, which are decorated with a mixture of African wall hangings and antique French furniture.
Gorée is home to one of Senegal's most poignant sites, La Maison des Esclaves, built by the Dutch in 1786, which bears witness to the island's role in the Atlantic slave trade. The Dakar peninsula is Africa's westernmost point, and therefore closest, geographically, to the Americas, but there is also a strong historical and spiritual tie with the new world. For the African diaspora, and African-Americans in particular, the Slave House has become a place of pilgrimage. Looking out from the dank stone dungeons that open directly on to the ocean is a horrifying reminder of a trade that saw up to 20 million Africans shipped from the many slave houses which once lined the west African coast.
From Gorée, we headed north to another former colonial centre, St Louis, the capital and major trading centre for the whole of French west Africa for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. The island-city has barely changed since, though time and the weather have eroded much of the classic colonial architecture.
Time and weather also prevented us from exploring two of the major attractions of northern Senegal. We lacked the time to take a cruise on the restored grand old liner, the BouEl Mogdad (saheldecouverte.com, six days for €420pp) up the Senegal river, and a freakishly mild October in Europe delayed the annual migration to the Oiseaux du Djoudj national park, the third most important bird sanctuary on the planet. The site is the first wetland south of the Sahara and is colonised by flamingoes, pelicans and dozens of other species each November. This year the brilliant spectacle is only just getting started.
Our other disappointment was the state of St Louis's beach. It is a fascinating city to wander round for a day or two but the local beach is home to chickens and goats rather than sunbathers.
So we took a half-hour taxi ride to Langue de Barbarie and stayed at the laidback Campement Océan et Savane on an isolated peninsula between the ocean and river where we had miles of pristine sand to ourselves. The rooms are in small huts on stilts in the river, and the pièce de résistance is the huge Mauritanian tent-restaurant decorated with sofas, low tables and lavish African fabrics.
Campements are a Senegalese speciality. They provide some of the best accommodation and are often located in beautiful remote areas - on beaches, river deltas and even the desert, in the form of Mauritanian camps - ranging from simple village or government-run huts to high-end, often French-owned, bungalows and villas.
We spent our last few days at Le Kalassai, a posh campement in a tropical garden on the beach near the village of Abéne, in the southern region of Casamance. Unlike the semiarid north of the country, the south is gorgeously tropical. Even in Dakar, they call Casamance "real Africa".
Senegal doesn't offer the epic vistas of east and southern Africa, but Casamance is an area of stunning natural beauty. The first thing we saw on leaving the small airport in the regional capital of Zuiguinchor was an immense tree with around a hundred pelicans perched on its mighty branches.
The drive from here to the coast winds its way through the delta of the great Casamance river, a maze of lagoons, small islands, mangroves, birds diving for fish and colourful villages where children and elders congregate under the shade of sacred baobab trees. Our driver felt obliged to stop in every other village to exchange high-fiving "salam alaikums" with his friends.
It was hard to reconcile this idyllic region with its turbulent recent history, when fighting between separatist rebels and government troops threatened to tear Casamance apart. Now peace has returned so have the tourists - to the Club Med on Senegal's finest beach at Cap Skiring, for superb deep-sea fishing and birdwatching, or just to hang out in the beach shacks and play djemba drums. But few are Brits. Although Senegal is one of the most popular destinations in Africa for the French, the country is still way off our holiday radar.
A fan of Youssou N'Dour's recently spent weeks walking 900km across the semi-desert from Mali just to meet his hero. For us it's only seven hours away.
Way to go
Getting there British Airways (ba-dakar.com, or call Masterfare on 020-7420 7333) flies Heathrow-Dakar direct from £510 rtn inc tax. Dakar-based Nouvelles Frontières (+823 34 34, nfsenegal.com) can tailor-make itineraries with English-speaking guides.
Where to stay Dakar: Hôtel Sokhamon (+889 71 00, hotelsokhamon.com), doubles from CFA 49,000. Le Méridien President (starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien, +869 69 69) from CFA135,000. Gorée: Hostellerie du Chevalier de Boufflers (+822 53 64, email@example.com) CFA27,000. St Louis: Hôtel de la Résidence CFA34,200; Campement Océan et Savane CFA6,600pp or CFA 15,200 half-board - both bookable on +961 12 60, hoteldelaresidence.com. Abené: Le Kalissai (+944 8600, kalissai.com) bungalows from CFA32,000.
Tourist information: au-senegal.com.
Country code: 00 221.
Time difference: none.
£1 = 971 Communauté Financière Africaine