MUSIC OF SENEGAL part 4

NURU KANE
MAYAM (Tchekchouka)

Nuru Kane returns with another grooving set of his Baye Fall-inspired music from Senegal. Google will lead you to several free download sites; I don't know if this was his intention, but it's there for the taking. The Baye Fall is a Mouride sect of Sufi followers of Amadou Bamba, the nineteenth-century mystic. To them, all humble work is a devotional act (as it should be). Kane plays guitar, bass and guimbri, a three stringed bassy instrument associated with the Gnawa farther North in Africa, but now widespread in the Sahara (and probably Europe where I think he is based). There's a smorgasbord of styles here, including fiery mbalax on "Welcome," reggae, and Casamance folk that veers into rap on "Atomik." He has one sound effect in his group, an early synthesizer, that forcibly recalls Edgar Winter's White Trash which may be cute but dates it terribly. His strained and histrionic singing in "Tengkoy" doesn't help, but he has catchy hooks. However bringing in a kazoo on "Djerejef," which is already packed with rock guitar, flute, marimba, and "megaphone" mike is overkill. There is some good musicianship on here, and he probably does a great live show, but it seems like they are trying to throw as many ideas as possible into one CD in the hopes of catching a wider audience. Straightforward tracks like "Yakar" are the most effective. The title, "Mayam," means "resources" in Wolof, and here he has gathered together rock and roll with mbalax and a load of other influences from gospel to gnawa: it's tasty in bites but overall may lead to indigestion.

YOUSSOU NDOUR
MBALAX (Universal Music Africa)

It's been two years since Youssou N'dour's last album, a period of reflection, for all of us, locked down at home. However he has a recording studio in his house and has a parade of young bloods coming by to wax their own tracks and keep him abreast of musical development is his hometown of Dakar. To the traditional mbalax sound that he pioneered with his group Etoile de Dakar, he has grafted on elements of stadium rock and Latin salsa (so far no Hip Hop, grâce à Dieu). The old Cuban-tinged Senegalese music of his peers like Baobab and the original Star Band was indeed the sound that the polyrhythmic intensity of mbalax swept away. He used to put out twin releases, one for the domestic African market (rawer and more drum heavy) and one for the Western fans (with the rock sound and synths), but the two styles eventually merged. The latest album starts quietly with synthesizer strings, incongruous kora (yes it's a West African instrument but I think of it as a chamber or solo sound and not part of a large rock ensemble) and then horns and trap drums underpin the big sound he developed touring with Peter Gabriel in the 1980s. Electric guitar and massed tama and conga drums quickly assert themselves and fortunately he has the voice to stay on top of it all. By now the drone of the synth and the occasionally tinny lead which resembles no known musical instrument are a little tired, a musical security blanket that Youssou falls back on. When he toured he relied on his guitarist and tama drummer on stage but now, in the studio, he can tinker and layer and this cocoon prevents us hearing the essence of his music. He does get there eventually, but it's through a sonic haze. His singing and songwriting are still strong but an unplugged album would really clear away the cobwebs.

BEN AYLON
XALAM (Riverboat TUGCD1130)

This is remarkable: Ben Aylon is an Israeli musician who traveled to Dakar seven years ago to study the traditional sabar drum, with the son of the great Doudou Ndaiye Rose as his teacher. He became so proficient he was soon gigging with the likes of Youssou Ndour. He developed a technique for playing ten drums at once, to make the sound of a whole troupe of drummers! He was greatly influenced by the takamba ceremonial music of Gao. He then went on to study ngoni, xalam (another ancient stringed instrument) and other traditional West African instruments. His one man show was televised in Senegal and led to him performing with Cheikh Lô (an incredible drummer himself), Omar Pene and Doudou Ndiaye Rose. For his debut album Aylon plays the xalam, as well as sabar, various ngonis, synth and electric bass. He explains the reason for the title of his album: the word is also the root of the Hebrew word for "dream." The line-up is as impressive as Aylon's career, for he managed to record two separate Malian divas as he encountered them in his travels. Amy Sacko sings "Alafia" (recorded in Gibraltar) and he recorded the late Khaira Arby in a hotel room in Worms, Germany, in 2015. His third diva, is Aviva, an Ethiopian singer, stretching the sound across Africa to the East coast. The tracks with these guest vocalists are exceptional, like he is flexing every muscle to come up to their level. This is another great discovery from Riverboat.

NGATAMAARE
NGALU FOUTA (Palenque Records)

Ngatamaaré is a group from the Fouta region of Senegal. They are Diola, the same ethnic group as Baaba Maal (who produced their first album in 2003 and, if you remember, released an album called Firin in Fouta), and have sonic similarities to him and also (to my ears) the classic Casamance band Touré Kounda (from the South), but that is more my western preconceptions reacting to the high voice on echo over the tama drums and interwoven rhythms. They come from Northern Senegal and Mauretania. Their name Ngatamaaré means the big rain that comes to end a drought. The group was formed in 1997 by two young men, Saly Diawu and Harouna Diop, who have returned to the traditional sounds of their Peulh ancestors, with calabashes, guitar and I also hear ngoni. In fact I think I hear two ngonis on "Noua" dueling with the guitarist. Like Touré Kunda there is a spiritual quality, sort of an endless twilight time that illuminates their sound. And then there is the frantic tama drumming we associate with early Youssou Ndour, who is from another ethnic group entirely! So despite my confusion as to where in Senegal this sound originates, I am really enjoying their fresh attack on the traditional music of the Peuls and other ethnic groups (Yella, Wango, Ripoo and Nallé are mentioned in the notes); their energy is sustained throughout and the drummers keep them going. Bits of ambient sound float in and out and the acoustic guitar is clean and clear. It's not all frantic and they settle down to deliver a well-rounded heartwarming set.

AWALE JANT BAND
YEWOULEN (ARC Music EUCD2885)

Biram Seck is a singer/songwriter who hails from Dakar. Son of a traditional Wolof storyteller, he is endowed with a fine soulful voice. Relocating to London he met a French jazz guitarist, Thibaut Remy, and they decided to merge their bands, creating a classic Afrobeat fusion. In fact they have played with Tony Allen, doyen of the genre. Here the drums are mainly the traditional sabar from Senegal (two of them), with jazz elements coming from the sparkling horns, trumpet and sax, and the guitar. Plus there are several guest horn players to beef up the arrangements. Their influences vary from Fania All Stars to Ethiopian jazz to traditional Senegalese bands like Thione Seck or Etoile de Dakar, but the overwhelming feeling is of West African afrobeat. Normally I would pass on this type of retro mixture, but there is some excellent soloing, strong songwriting, and as I say Seck is a very good singer.

YOUSSOU NDOUR
HISTORY (Naive Records)

I am trying not to sound like a cranky old sourpuss. I did not review the Salif Keita album Another Blank, which came out last October (on the same label) and was touted to be his final statement (with a grand farewell tour in the manner of Elton John or other rolling stoners). Youssou is now a grand old man too, though I remember what a bright lad he was on his first US tour when he came by the radio station in a little college on top of a hill in San Francisco and dutifully answered the same old questions put to him by yours truly, a novice young broadcaster. Now he looks back over 35 years with portentous remakes of some of his favorite tracks, many first issued on cassette and sold in the streets of Dakar and then bootlegged in ever-diminishing quality. The opener is a tribute to Habib Faye, longtime sideman in his band, but it is loungey with easy-listening horns and not a promising start. Seinabo Sey (proponent of Scandinavian electro-soul) takes over vocals on the second track, "Birima," which is so depressing I had to take it off. Again there's angst-laden synths and this time an intrusive drum pattern. Where's Youssou? Oh here he is singing harmony in English, not his strong suit. Then he wails on echo... how much more of this can I stand? I liked Peter Gabriel back in the days of "Biko" but that big room over-production where every instrument has its own echo chamber, is really ponderous. Youssou's songs are "reimagined"; I would have preferred to hear them recreated. To fans in Dakar the cassettes were just a byproduct of their experience of the band, which they saw in clubs and stadiums; to fans in the West however, the same cassettes became talismata, however imperfect, of an emotional atmosphere they longed to get inside. The poor sound made you ache for it to open up so you could hear the tama, see the robes flapping as the dancers bucked on the stage, driven by the music. But without looking back, globetrotting Youssou goes off to Nigeria to refigure a couple of tunes by percussionist Babatunde Olatunji. In this he also follows Keita who had Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Angelique Kidjo on his "final" album. "Macoumba" returns to the mbalax sounds of Dakar that made Ndour famous and we want to hold the moment, have it blossom into a full album. It's worth holding out to hear this one, but then the "Kenny G of Cameroun" Alain Oyono returns & they put Youssou back into the echo chamber. And it does get worse, "Hello (remix)" is another English-language song this time by Congolese-Swede Mohombi, with added wailing from Youssou. It must have escaped from the Eurovision song contest, on its hands and knees. This album is all over the map, sadly it doesn't stop long enough in Dakar to get any traction. I often lamented the influence of Peter Gabriel on Ndour, but then his 2004 album Egypt, on Nonesuch, showed he could turn his vocal talents to the good with the right material. It's a shame his history is so tainted with the mediocre pop traces of his success.

COUMBA GAWLO
TERROU WAAR (Sabar)

Not unlike an aging rocker, Salif Keita announced his retirement with a final album along with a farewell tour. Sad to report his farewell album is just an attempt to recapture his glory moment from 1987 when his breakout album Soro, produced by Ibrahim Sylla, brought synth and euro-horns to his traditional West African sound. I cannot listen to it. Thirty years later I am sick of the sound of synth washes and sampled instruments. There's no doubt the West African sound certainly has evolved and needs to continue to grow but there is still room for traditional praise-singing as heard on the opening cuts from this strong album from Coumba Gawlo Seck. The ubiquitous Sylla launched her career in the mid-90s when the Senegalese singer was still in her early 20s. Next to Youssou Ndour she is the best-selling artist in her homeland. Her new album showcases folk music, pop music and what I would call light jazz. This is an unfortunate development, after a strong opening when she gets to "Na," the fourth track, and Kenny G-type sax playing intrudes, along with the shrill Peul flute, it's over the top. Pop is up next with "Diombadio" which also has a traditional fiddle player behind the big band. "Rokale," "Borom Ndaam" and "Ngoulok" remind me a lot of the Salif Keita sound I was complaining about above. However the latter turns into a jam on the sabar drums and I suspect she is a fine dancer and they can tear this up in performance. "Tekk Gui" is more of a breathy French ballad, with echoey keyboards and bird sounds, the sort of thing that made us think Baaba Maal had lost the plot. More atmospherics kick off "Naby" which leans towards the "tinkly arabesque" sound Youssou captured on his Sufi album, Egypt. This is a good showcase for her voice and smartly they held it back (so she wouldn't get hoarse?) to show what she is capable of, after the tepid mid-section of the disc. The closer "Allez Africa" is another very light pop ditty with a heavy bass bomp to get the French-speaking punters waving their hands in the air.

BAO SISSOKO, MOLA SYLLA & WOUTER VENDENABEELE
TAMALA (Muziekpublique)

This trio was formed in the Low Countries, far from the hot deserts of West Africa. Yet they retain the arid raspy vocals and the sparkling strings reminiscent of glistening drops of water evaporating in the bright sun. The two Africans are Senegalese and brought their traditions into exile in Europe. There they hooked up with violinist Wouter Vandenabeele in Brussels, the international crossroads of Belgium. Like other successful fusion albums, the violin fits in perfectly with the plangent kora of Sissoko and the other strings plucked by Mola Sylla. He plays the small ngoni-like xalam and thumb piano on two tracks. The band name Tamala means Travelers, which has far pleasanter connotations than Refugees. However they sing about the plight of slaves in the striking number "Kongoman" which refers not to Jamaican music but to the kalimba which was brought to Senegal by slaves en route to the New World. The violin soars and evokes the big "Egyptian" sound that Youssou admired in the music of Oum Kalthoum. In the heart of the album, the violin leads the line on the instrumental "Ceppe" and "Zanzibar" which is a tribute to Bi Kidude, the late taarab singer. Kora and xalam intertwine on "Geej DJu Malika" a song about Malika the town near Dakar where Sylla goes to the ocean for inspiration. Vandenabeele plucks his fiddle expressively too. In fact the violin blends in perfectly, alternately plucked and bowed (as on "Xafamaya") adding counterpoint and grace notes and making the ensemble sound that much bigger.

ORCHESTRA BAOBAB
TRIBUTE TO NDIOUGA DIENG (World Circuit WCD092)

There are many guests on the new Baobab, their first new album in a decade, but one notable absence: Barthélémy Attisso, the brilliant guitarist whose fine filigree adorned all of their recordings until now. Maybe to compensate they've added a kora, which seems very incongruous given their Latin-tinged music; their regular rhythm guitarist Latfi Benjeloun is also missing from the line-up. The rest of the surviving band members are here: the twin saxes of Issa Cissoko & Thierno Koite, the voices of Balla Sidibé & Rudy Gomis. Plus the rhythm section. Adding to the line-up we find veteran guitarist Yahya Fall who was with the Star Band throughout the 1970s; by the 90s he was backing Mar Seck. There's a trombone, jauntily played by Wilfried Zinzou; two powerhouse Senegalese singers also show up for a moment: Chiekh Lo sings on one song and Thione Seck on another. Seck was originally in the band, but quit in 1979 to pursue his own career with Le Raam Daan, a more mbalax-oriented group. Here he reprises "Sey," his hit with Baobab which can be found on the Guy Gu Rey Gi album (Buur BRLP002 1965). If you don't have that don't despair, you can also hear it on the Night at Club Baobab compilation CD (Oriki Music, 2006). The new version cooks along, thanks to high fidelity and the fact the new guitarists only have to mimic the original to sound good. Oumar Sow, another legendary Senegalese guitarist, also appears, but I think only as a rhymist. There's another remake, of "Kanouté," which returns as the strong opening cut, "Foulo," sung by Balla, who also interpolates bits of "Djanfa Magni" into the chorus. There's no question this new release is a great album and you need to hear it, but on first listen I was a little disappointed by the kora instead of the sparkling leads of Barthélémy (who decided to stay home in Togo after 16 years of endless world tours, since their comeback). Guitar solos are notable by their absence and without Attisso it's really not Baobab. Abdouleye Cissoko, on the kora, steps up for a remake of "Mariama," a Manding folk song covered by Onivogui Balla et ses Balladins, Orch Paillote and other groups. But the saxes, congas and timbales combine to make the familiar melting ambience just fine.

DIAMA NDIAYE
DAFAREER (Zhu Culture Productions)

Diama Ndiaye is Senegalese but has lived in Congo and elsewhere so there's a nice pan-African feel to her music which is also varied in styles and approach. She has been an actress, singer and dancer all her life, making her debut with the National Theatre of Senegal. Then she was a singer with the great Ouza and later Bira Guèye. On tour to Portugal in 1994 she left the Ballet Mansour and spent 8 years living there before moving to France. Following this she lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo before moving to Djibouti. The title means "He is lost" in Wolof, and is a song about street children which she encounters in African cities. She pleads with parents to care for their offspring. There is a degree of the big bombastic sound we associate with the early 80s Salif Keita albums, especially in her singing, but also some speedy soukous with accordion in "RDC-Senegal," where she sings loud and breathlessly like she is dancing with flailing arms while singing! Best of all are tracks like the title "Dafarèèr," which harken back to the sound of Ouza, with nice horn punctuation, simple rock instrumentation, and not too much of the synth strings. Otherwise she tends to get preachy which, even to a non-Wolof speaker, is a bit tedious.

IBRAHIMA CISSOKHO & LE MANDINGUE FOLY
YANFU (Studio Nomade SNP2016-IC-01/2)

Another tradition-based album of Manding music, this one with some French (?) musicians jamming on it. Senegal and Gambia are referenced in the songs. Cissokho is the leader, singing (in English on "Dinala setsi") and playing kora. The engine of the band is electric bass, Western drumkit and a Peul flute. Guests include some of the musicians from the Sory Diabate Wali session: Petit Adama Diarra on djembe and acoustic guitar or three tracks and Sory Diabaté on balafon on one cut. In addition the renowned Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius steps up for one song, "Senegal", which aspires to funk, and Khadim Sene contributes sabar, which is a variable pitch or talking drum. Guillaume Lavergne's keyboards add sonic washes (including literally ocean sounds) which lend atmosphere without being overwhelming. The kora also uses electronic pedals for stereo and reverb which is a bit overdone on "Manduleen." The Peul flute is an acquired taste: fans of Jethro Tull will probably dig the "yelling and gasping into the mouth-hole" aspect. It's balanced between mbalax and rock but interesting to see where traditional music is headed.