THE 'BOOMERANG' EFFECT

It's 1:30 a.m. inside a small, humid club in Austin, Texas, on the last day of the South by Southwest music festival. The scraggly crowd of indie rockers should be at the bar, desperately sucking down their last drinks. Instead, they've formed orderly lines on the dance floor and they're stepping in time to the band onstage: five paces to the right, jump, five to the left, jump, now quake maniacally in place. This stuff happens only in John Hughes movies--except when Daara J plays. This Senegalese trio's rapid-fire multilingual raps, savvy street beats and gravity-defying acrobatics have made them one of the few acts to break out of the world-music ghetto and into the American hip-hop scene--and the hipster scene as well.

Daara J (i.e., School of Life) just kicked off its first U.S. tour, opening for Fugee Wyclef Jean at Manhattan's Lincoln Center; it'll end it with Mos Def at the Hollywood Bowl late this month. Its American debut album is called "Boomerang"--and there's a story behind that. "The first time we heard American rap," says Daara J's founding MC Faada Freddy, "it sounded no different from tasso [Senegal's centuries-old music]. Our theory is that it traveled to America during the slave era. It was slumbering in the deepest part of their souls, and then one day it was awakened. It reminded them of their roots. Then it conquered the world. And now it's back home."

These days, young Africans like the members of Daara J are freestyling from Kenya to Ghana. But the boomerang has taken a few twists and turns. In addition to the mix of traditional Senegalese instruments and Bronx street beats, you can hear traces of Cuban jazz in Daara J's music; its members gravitated early on toward Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy and Tupac, but they were also drawn to their parents' records. "We loved Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Sly and the Stone Family," says Freddy. "I mean Family Stone." Such influences make Daara J sound appealingly familiar to American ears, but the words (even those that Anglophones can understand) are a world away. "The American hip-hop industry is focused on the bling stuff," says Freddy. "When you live in a poor country like Senegal, you cannot afford to rap about those things. Before you talk about your rings and your diamonds, you must ask, 'How can I find something to eat today?' " It's a long flight of the boomerang from scuffling in Senegal to inciting line dances in Texas, but Daara J does it in style.