For every world music enthusiast who celebrates musical cross-pollination, there's a naysayer bemoaning the risk that the mix will only produce a watered-down lowest common denominator. Of course the enthusiasts have lots of support for their position: Youssou N'Dour's Egypt
(Nonesuch, 2004) masterfully combined Senegalese mbalax and Arabic classical music, while Thione Seck's Orientation
(Stern's Africa, 2005) added Indian music to N'Dour's Senegalo-Egyptian mix with equally dazzling results.Sénégal
, the first album of new material by Ismaël Lo in over five years, is at least in part one for the naysayers. Lo incorporates vaguely North African elements on "Incha Allah and vaguely South African elements on "Tass Yakar appealing gestures, with high production values to boot, but more of a murky international pop stew than the aforementioned records by his compatriots N'Dour and Seck.
Elsewhereon "Le Jola, which mourns the victims of the horrific 2002 Dakar-Casamance ferry accident
that claimed more lives than the sinking of the Titanic
, and on "Plus je fais ci, plus je fais ça Lo introduces a vague reggae shtick, but without conviction. Compare this to the genuine use of reggae elements by the London-based Afro-beat band Soothsayers on their excellent Tangled Roots
(Red Earth, 2006) to get a sense of how powerful this mix might be.
I allude to the examples of N'Dour, Seck and Soothsayers here precisely to illustrate that cross-pollination can yield excellent results. It's nevertheless the case that the best numbers on this record are a handful of mid-tempo mbalax tunes ("Manko, "Jiguen )that is, the songs that stick closest to the Senegalese elements that Lo presumably knows best.
Lo was tagged as the "African Bob Dylan early on, because he played the acoustic guitar and the harmonica, and because of the social content of his lyrics. Sénégal
marks a further step away from that musical identity, although he does play a little guitar and harmonica on this record. "Ma fille, a sentimental father's lament upon his daughter's marriage, borrows the acoustic guitar riff from Oasis's 90s hit "Wonderwall, and it's affecting. When Lo sings "mbindane du jaam your servant is not a slaveon "Mbindane, the folky setting carries a sense of political conviction.
Perhaps the surest sign of what this record means for Lo's musical development is his remake of his long-ago smash hit, "Tajabone, a reminiscence about a children's game, apparently. The new version has the same guitar and harmonica arrangement as the original, but Lo's voice is a little fuller. He's also now accompanied by an autumnal string section that brings the whole affair rather close to the Rolling Stones's "As Tears Go By. Which is to say, a little maudlin.
Lo's insistence on singing in Wolof on all but two tracksnot even providing French or English translations in the liner notesvigorously counters the sappy universalism of the musical treatments and is to be applauded.