Little wonder that the late keyboardist Joe Zawinul recruited Cameroonian vocalist/bassist Etienne Mbappe to the Syndicate in 2001. His honey-sweet, yet smoky vocals, enviable writing and arranging skills and an electric bass technique second to none have also attracted the likes of kora player Toumani Diabte, guitarist/singer Ali Farka Tourre, guitarist Nguyen Le and singers Ray Charles and Salif Keita. Little wonder too, that Mbappe struck out on his own in 2003; judging by the results of Su La Take,
Mbappe has much to offer in his own right.
These fourteen tracks, all but three written by Mbappe, harbor many little gems, and ring with the spirit of West Africa. Snaking, reedy African guitar lines invite the listener to dance, and lush, Ladysmith Black Mambazo-style vocal harmonies do likewise. Joy and optimism permeate the music. All the songs are sung in the soft, Duala language, which lends itself very well to a ballad like "Alane," which, were it sung say, by Sting or Paul Simon, would probably be an enormous world-wide hit.
Light and breezy flute, sunny acoustic guitar and vibraphones combine to illuminate "Dangwa" but it is Mbappe's great vocal melody which lingers in the memory. On the infectious "Elimba Dikalo," guest Manu Dibango's soprano sax sings and chirps alongside a swirling rhythm driven by African guitar lines and hand-claps. Mbappe also shines on acoustic guitar, and his delightful string-picking on another standout track, "San San Boy," underlines the range of his talents.
Mbappe is however, best known as a bassist, and his bass simmers and purrs, never overpowering the other instruments, never grandstanding. Technically flawless, he also exhibits impeccable taste, playing with a restraint and sensitivity more associated with bass playing of the upright variety. At times his bass rips and drives, but briefly, like ripples.
The instrumentation on Su La Take is an attractive mixture of steel drum, fugelhorn, kamala ngoni, trumpet, cello, guitars, violin and the ever-present, though understated percussion. Mbappe's arrangements mean that the music never sounds cluttered; all the instruments have plenty of elbow room and combine most effectively. The standout instrument however, is Etienne Mbappe's voice; rich and seductivea storyteller's voice.
Su La Take means An End to Worries, and optimism is impregnated in this music from the first to the last note. At over an hour in length, the album is perhaps a couple of tracks too heavy, as the merely good songs pale slightly in comparison with the predominantly excellent; but Mbappe has nevertheless created an album full of strong, melodious compositions which entertain as much as they lift the spirit.
Personnel: Etienne Mbappe: lead and background vocals, basses, acoustic and electric guitars; Cate Petit: background vocals; Herve Gourdikian: flutes and saxophones; Jim Grandcamp: guitars; Roger Biwandi: drums and percussion; Gerard Cardocci: additional percussion; Christophe Cravero: keyboards; Andy Narrell: steel drums, vibraphone; Harouna Samake: kamala ngoni; Bobby Nguime: acoustic and electric guitars; Stephane Belmondo: trumpet, fugel horn; Valentine Duteil: cello; Daniel Zimmermann: trombone; Manu Dibango: soprano saxophone.