Around-the-world scented trip: perfume of Africa

Perfume in Africa is linked to ancestral rituals and the continent's scents now inspire many noses.

After a first stopover in Asia, your nose tickled by a multitude of scents, we suggest you take to the road again, this time to breathe the perfume of Africa. Cradle of beauty and well-being for thousands of years, this continent is full of fragrant raw materials that make us travel in a few drops. In the heart of this vast and scented territory, stepping in this land is setting your nose in turmoil. Between mystical rituals and precious ingredients, come with us on this olfactory travel diary.

On the road of African perfumes

It is impossible to sum up Africa in a single smell, so varied are its territory and cultures. However, as soon as we land on the continent, a characteristic scent emanates and will later define our olfactory memories. Imagine the smell of a scorched earth, of a life teeming with people and animals, dust, flowers, spices… Between moisture and delicacy, Africa expresses itself in a perfume that will stick to our skin and nostrils. Ryszard Kapuściński, Polish author and journalist, famous for his reports made in the heart of Africa, expresses in a few words what this so specific smell is for him:

On the gangway of the plane we are welcomed by a new scent: that of the tropics. (…) It is the smell of a heated body, drying fish, decomposing meat and fried cassava, fresh flowers and fermented seaweed. In short, everything that pleases and irritates at the same time, attracts and repels, tempts and disgusts. This smell chases us, exhaling from the palm groves, from the burning earth.

Ébène, Ryszard Kapuściński – 1998

In the heart of the Moroccan souks

Let’s start our olfactory journey in North Africa and more particularly in Morocco. The first step of the traveler will be to get lost in the colorful mazes of the souks of Marrakech. Behind the gates of the Medina, just next to the Jemaâ El Fna square, it is a real spectacle for the eyes and the nose which is offered to you. Between the smell of freshly squeezed oranges, the sweet aroma of the mint tea flowing behind the stalls, and the scent of the gum arabic burners, all the senses will be solicited!

If the perfumed dance of incense gently wraps you, it is a less pleasant scent that awaits you in the souk of tanners in Fez. Accept with pleasure the sprig of mint that will be offered to you to hide the smells of the pigments used in the preparation of leather. Then let your nose guide you to the souk Jdid in Essouira. The salty spray of the ocean will mix with the perfumes of the fish market and the hundreds of fragrant spices that will be sold by the kilo. You are already impregnated with a sweet oriental perfume…

A thousand and one spices

The nose titillated by so many odors, hunger is starting to set in when you enter the kitchens of African families. Around the pots are piled up a multitude of sachets of spices of all kinds. The flavors of red chilli pepper will first tickle the tongue and nose of the bravest. Then you can sweeten yourself with akpi, an almond from a fruit tree, or with wild mango pits. Star anise, cumin, saffron and Cameroonian white pepper… So many spices that will enliven all the preparations to make you live a trip both gustatory and olfactory.

The use of perfume in Africa

Between perfume and incense: the thiouraye from Senegal

Thiouraye is a very strong element of the olfactory culture of Black Africa and more particularly of Senegal. All the streets and houses of the country give off this warm and soothing smell. Thiouraye is a blend of wood shavings, fragrant herbs and grainy incense that is traditionally soaked with perfumed ingredients: sandalwood, musk, oud or amber. Used like incense, thiouraye is burned on embers to embalm houses and clothes. Senegalese women perfume themselves with it and the legend says that its enveloping scent bewitches men, hypnotized by this sacred scent!

An ancestral process

There are several varieties of thiouraye and not really a standard recipe for making it. Each woman creates her own composition and will pass it on to her daughter to ensure its durability. The mixture is then kept in a glass jar to let it macerate for several months or even years, so that all the fragrances will blend together. After this phase, the product is ready to be burned. To do this, Senegalese women generally use a terracotta censer called an “ande”. Filled with burning embers and covered with ashes, the thiouraye will thus exhale a lot of perfume without producing too much smoke.

The mythical perfume from Africa: Bint-El-Sudan

For a long time, a fragrance produced in Africa was the best-selling perfume in the world. Nicknamed “African Chanel No. 5”, this still largely unknown fragrance is called Bint-El-Sudan, the daughter of Sudan. It was created in 1920 by Eric Burgess, a British adventurer. According to legend, 14 Arab tribal chiefs came to meet him during his trip to Khartoum in Sudan. With their arms full of scented essences, they would have asked him to make perfume out of them. As soon as he returned to England, he did so to create a perfume without alcohol and with a subtle blend. Once the composition had been smelled, the tribal chiefs would all have exclaimed in one voice “Beimshee” (let’s go, in Arabic)!

The recipe for success

A real communication campaign was launched, quite innovative for the time, with colorful posters hung in all the streets of the big Sahelian cities. The perfume was first sold to African pilgrims on their way to Mecca. It was also used as a currency in trans-Saharan trade. For some, its prosperity is explained by its characteristic smell with floral and sweet notes but also by its oily and greasy texture. Others speak of a “graphic” success. On its small green bottle, we can see the only bare-breasted woman visible in northern Nigeria. Territory where Sharia law is in force. Whatever the reason, Bint-El-Sudan is now an indispensable part of women’s cosmetics.

On the left, the image stuck on the perfume of Bint-El-Sudan represents a young Sudanese woman, in the middle the traditional spices of Africa, and on the right a preparation of thiouraye.

Emblematic raw materials

Like a return to our roots, (the very first forms of fragrances appeared in Egypt nearly 6,000 years ago) Africa has become a great source of inspiration for perfumers in recent decades. Cosmetic laboratories have been able to exploit the secrets of African culture by adding shea butter, cocoa or rassoul to their formulas. But the Noses are not to be outdone, thanks to exceptional raw materials.

The hyraceum, or “stone of Africa”

Hyraceum is a raw material of animal origin that is uncommon in classic perfumery. This essence, derived from the fossilized excrement of a rodent that looks like a large marmot, has been harvested since ancient times in East Africa. Hyraceum is a rare and therefore very expensive product. It is also the only authorized animal ingredient, along with ambergris, because no suffering is caused to obtain it. On the olfactory level, the African stone gives off a very animal smell with a leathery facet.

The orange blossom of North Africa

The orange blossom comes from the bitter orange tree, a tree cultivated in North Africa, particularly in Morocco and Tunisia. Originally from China, the bitter orange tree is said to have been very popular in Arabia since Antiquity. Its culture spread all around the Mediterranean and in Spain after its importation by the Arabs. Orange blossom is a flagship ingredient in Moroccan culinary art and is synonymous with festivities. In perfumery, its sweet and powdery scent is always appreciated. Our fragrances ippi patchouli and alfred kafé have a discreet orange blossom note in their olfactory construction.

Madagascar clove

Located in the province of Tamatave, in the north of Madagascar, Analanjirofo, the “clove region” in Malagasy, is aptly named! It is from these hills that about 40% of the world production comes from. Introduced at the beginning of the 19th century, its flowers are picked by hand when the buds are ready to open. These buds are then dried in the sun where they get their characteristic brown color. Clove oil has a warm, camphoric and medicinal scent. It is a raw material widely used in oriental perfumes and this is how it is found in our kilim fragrance.

Thanks to technology, particularly the head space technique, but also to the curiosity of perfume creators, new ingredients are studied every year. Tulipwood from Gabon or Makore wood bark from Côte d’Ivoire, many new notes could soon become part of your fragrances. Thus ends our second fragrant stopover in Africa. See you in a month for a new olfactory journey…

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