Senegal's Etoile de Dakar featuring Youssou N'Dour and south London's Yaaba Funk

Chris May BY

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The birth of mbalax in Senegal towards the close of the 1970s, and a 2010 highlife/funk hybrid from south London, show how the embrace of imported styles by African musicians can enrich the continent's music.

Etoile de Dakar featuring Youssou N'Dour
Once Upon a Time in Senegal: The Birth of Mbalax 1979-1981

Digging into Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour's back catalogue is a fun exercise on two fronts. The recordings he made with the original Etoile de Dakar lineup between 1979-81 are a delight in their own right; and listening to them again in 2010 demonstrates how far N'Dour has travelled over the last 30 years. The punky, psychedelia-drenched proto-mbalax heard on Once Upon a Time in Senegal: The Birth of Mbalax 1979-1981 is in almost total contrast to the nuanced elegance of Egypt (Nonesuch, 2004) or the bland and over-polished vibe of Dakar-Kingston (Decca, 2010).

And yet there have been some constants over the decades. Etoile de Dakar's lead guitarist, Jimi Mbaye, and tama drummer, Assane Thiam, have remained at N'Dour's side since becoming founder members of his Super Etoile de Dakar, the breakaway group he founded in 1981. Bassist Kabou Gueye was another founder member of Super Etoile; now a freelance songwriter and producer based in Dakar, he and N'Dour co-wrote the material featured on Egypt (check the YouTube clip of that wonderful album's "Cheikh Ibra Fall" below). Then, of course, there is N'Dour's voice, no longer as raw as in the Etoile de Dakar years, but in its maturity, still every bit as spellbinding.

Etoile de Dakar had the good fortune to emerge shortly after the technology to mass produce cheap, cassette-only albums reached Senegal, enabling emerging artists to achieve some measure of independence from the old-time labels and their financiers. Etoile recorded six such albums between 1979-81: Absa Gueye, Thiapathioly, Tolou Badou N'Diaye, Lay Suma Lay, Khaley Etoile and Maleo, all self-produced and released on the Touba Auto Cassettes label. (Artists had to move fast though; official releases would be followed by even cheaper pirate versions within days).

Once Upon A Time In Senegal cherry picks all six albums, with the tracks programmed chronologically. A brash mélange of Senegambian melodies and folklore, Cuban percussion, the Senegalese tama drum (a small squeeze drum employed as a lead instrument), highlife and Latin-inspired horns, and distorted, acid rock-derived guitars—and the varied styles of lead singers N'Dour, El Hadji Faye, Eric M'Backe N'Doye and Mar Seck—Etoile's early recordings outraged Senegal's conservative musical establishment as much as they electrified the country's youth. The word mbalax was yet to be coined to describe the music, but its signature elements are all in place in these recordings.

The Sterns label's admirable collections of archive recordings from West Africa always include informative liner notes, and Mark Hudson's notes for Once Upon A Time In Senegal are no exception, putting the music into the context of its time and charting in some detail the break-up of Etoile de Dakar and the formation of Super Etoile.

A word of warning, however: in basing itself on interviews with singer El Hadji Faye and guitarist Badou N'Diaye, neither of whom were invited by N'Dour to join Super Etoile, the story is inevitably unbalanced. N'Diaye left Etoile in early 1981 following a massive, dope-induced freak-out shortly before going onstage one day. He reemerged with Faye in the briefly successful rival band Etoile 2000. Both men have axes to grind, and the story would be more rounded if N'Dour and Kabou Gueye, or Jimi Mbaye and Assane Thiam, or some other combination of the four, were also heard. That said, Hudson and his fellow researcher, Katerina Loebeck, are to be congratulated on tracking down the largely forgotten Faye and N'Diaye and getting their versions of events.

Yaaba Funk

Like the intermittently brilliant Soothsayers, Yaaba Funk is part of the unique multi-cultural, multi-ethnic musical mix that has been coming out of south London in the waxing years of the 2000s. But while Soothsayers' focus has increasingly moved towards roots reggae—a matter for some regret given the band's deft touch with Afrobeat when it chooses to go there—Yaaba Funk's basic template is the Ghanaian roots music which is the heritage of its lead singer, Richmond Kessie.

Even in 2010—between 60 and 80 years after highlife's birth, depending on where you start counting—much Ghanaian popular music is, or is related to, the typically good humored style: built on variants of the rhythmic motif known in Europe and America as the "postman's knock" or "Bo Diddley beat," and featuring sophisticated drum and percussion sections, call and response or chorale vocals, and extrovert horn arrangements originally inspired by Latin and Caribbean music. To this Yaaba Funk adds modern funk grooves, a little rock and jazz, and an occasional splash of Afrobeat. Soothsayers' core duo, tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman and trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, aka Soothsayers Horns, are prominent guest musicians.

Yaaba Funk is a hot live band, its generally up tempo music crafted to induce dancing, and transposed to disc, this could make for a somewhat samey experience. But the band rings as many changes as it has to hand: there are sterling, booting tenor solos on three tracks, and fine percussion breaks on others. The most ambitious, non-dance floor centric track, the 11:18 minute "Mutani N'Africa," is impressive. Arranged in six sections, it begins with a slow, mystical vibe created by traditional percussion and guitarist Christian Arcucci in "desert blues" mode. A second, faster and more urgent section, led by chanted vocals, follows. This in turn is followed by a percussion and dub vocals break. A return to the second section, then the first, then the second again, completes the piece.

Yaaba Funk's musicians come from across the globe—from Ghana, America, Martinique, Jamaica, Italy, Germany and the UK—but such diversity, in Britain anyway, is no longer remarkable. What is unusual is the engagement with which the rainbow hued players approach a root aesthetic, highlife, which most of them were not born into. They sound at ease and like they're enjoying themselves, and the feeling is infectious.

Tracks and Personnel

Once Upon a Time in Senegal

Tracks: CD1: Thiely; Dom Sou Nare Bakh; Esta China; Mane Khouma Khol Thi Yao; Jalo; Absa Gueye; Thiapa Thioly; Dagotte; Dounya; Diandioli; Kine Kine; M'Badane. CD2: Tolou Badou N'Diaye; Nit Kou N'Gnoul; Yalaye Dogal; My Wa Wa; Lay Suma Lay; Diankha Demal; Khaley Etoile; Sama Guenth-Gui; M'Baye Gueye; Titeur; Maleo.

Personnel: Youssou N'Dour: vocals; El Hadji Faye: vocals; Eric M'Backe N'Doye: vocals; Mar Seck: vocals; Alla Seck: vocals, maracas; Badou N'Diaye: lead guitar (CD1, CD2 #1-6); Jimi Mbaye: lead guitar (CD2 #7-11); Alpha Seyni Kante: rhythm guitar; Kabou Gueye: bass; Rane Diallo: alto saxophone; Diogomaye: saxophone; Mark Sambou: trumpet; Matar Gueye: congas; Abdou Fall: timbales; Assane Thiam: tama.


Tracks: Me Nye Me Dofo; Bukom Mashie; Nyash! E Go Bite You!!; Kalabule Man; Hwe Hwe Mu Na Yi Wompena; Mutani N'Africa; Oman Foa (Mmo Mma Yen Gye Yen Ani); Kanowa.

Personnel: Richmond Kessie: lead vocals, percussion; Helen McDonald: vocals; Tobia Sturmer: guitar, vocals; Paul Brett: bass, synthesiser, keyboards, vocals; Christian Arcucci: guitar; Lou Ciccotelli: drums; Clive Wales: congas, percussion; Trevor Antonio Kentish: percussion; Adrian Northover: alto saxophone; Sue Lynch: tenor saxophone; Robin Hopcraft: trumpet; Idris Rahman: tenor saxophone; Yul Emiralis: keyboards; Paul Zimmerman: shekere.

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