REVIEW: Prom 65a: Youssou Ndour & Le Super Étoile de Dakar

Youssou N'Dour
Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan

Prom 65a: Youssou Ndour & Le Super Étoile de Dakar
(Royal Albert Hall, 31 August 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

The music of Senegal has been passed down by families of singers called griots: storytellers who share the legends, myths and moral stories of the culture from generation to generation. The pride of not only his family but of all Senegal, Youssou Ndour is not just a modern griot; he is universally respected as a public figure of considerable influence and importance. In 2012 he tried to stand as a Presidential candidate in Senegal before being disallowed on a technicality.

His politics are inseparable from his music, but it is as a musician that he has had arguably the greatest impact. In the 1980s with his group Le Super Étoile de Dakar, Youssou Ndour pioneered an urgent, aggressive, and distinctive form of the street style Mbalax, fusing influences from pop, jazz, soul, rock, Caribbean, tango, and native Wolof styles into a high energy dance music. He reinvented and popularised into ubiquity a form that was previously only heard in the streets and nightclubs of the poor parts of town, and never in smart dance halls. Championed by Peter Gabriel since 1984 and invited on 1988’s high profile Human Rights Now tour, he became an international celebrity and the best known African singer of recent times.

xaj bi (the dog) - a dance move from Youssou Ndour
Photo credit BBC/Mark Allan

Youssou Ndour’s belated Proms debut brought the moves but less of the raw magic of Mbalax to the Royal Albert Hall in a concert that might nonetheless help to open more people up to exploring the rich diversity of the music of the mother continent. The mixture of freedom and precision in the 15-piece band is compelling, even after forty years of playing together. The diverse crowd in the Hall were raised to their feet and joyously involved in the dance moves that go hand in hand (literally) with the music of Mbalax, roused by the MCing of percussionist Babacar Faye and the energetic acrobatics of dancer and percussionist Moussa Sonko. Moussa integrates the old dance styles in a finessed way to energise the crowd but not in a tacky way, referencing signature dance moves the ventilateur, xaj bi (the dog), and the moulaye chigin, getting the whole hall to jelkati wave from left to right.

Assane Thiam
Photo credit: BBC/ Mark Allan

The varied set (which inevitably overran the radio slot scheduled for its simultaneous broadcast on BBC Radio 3) retained much of the characteristic spirit and energy of the music, but the party vibe was reined in less by any sense of formality or architectural prestige than by the programming of the set to reflect the range of Ndour’s extensive catalogue, which made the pacing vary. At least we were spared the cheesier gentilesse of his some of his work with Peter Gabriel. Deep reflective cuts like Same Gamou and New Africa offer space to reflect on political and social concerns. Lighter grooves Happy and Immigres and the chiming Birima have a pleasing lilt that belies their rhythmic complexity. International breakthrough 1994 mega-hit 7 Seconds (played seventh in the set of course) featured guest vocalist Cali Kamga ably reprising Neneh Cherry’s vocals in English. Youssou sings in Wolof, French and English. Most songs in Wolof deal with the problems of Senegal or immigrants in Europe. 7 Seconds is not just a stylistic and musical synthesis. It is a cultural and social thesis that articulates ongoing concerns.

Youssou N'Dour and Cali Kamga
Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan

Finishing with Bob Marley’s Redemption Song may have been an unnecessary concession to an audience that didn’t need conceding to, complete with cheesy sax solos, but I’m not dead enough inside just yet to deny a masterpiece like that. It fits in with the passionate intensity and commitment of the group, particularly when they cranked it up into a higher gear with harder hooks. The highlights of the evening were generally unique to the music, especially the note-bending psychedelics of Assane Thian on the Tama (talking drum), which are emblematic of the music’s vital fusion of the tonal and rhythmic.

The time constraints and variety approach gave less time for the strident Mbalax force of jams like Sey and the intensely driving funk of Senegal Rekki to get into their real stride. The clattering gallop of the interlocking syncopated rhythms from five percussionists, two keyboards (centred on the marimba setting on the Yamaha DX7) and three guitars is visceral. Whether owing to the notorious acoustics of the Albert Hall or the sound mix, master guitarist Mamadou ‘Jimi’ Mbaye’s sound was thin and the overall sound lacked oomph. You need the speakers living in clip trying to cope with the onslaught of multiple percussionists, keyboards and guitars. Even the radio broadcast shows a difference in production values at this concert. The percussion just needs to be a lot higher in the mix; the rhythm is everything, more leading than supporting. It should drill into your brain and come out of your feet and hands.

The selections and sound did lend more emphasis on Youssou Ndour’s voice itself, and what a voice. Rolling Stone once described him as “a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it.” The passionate sense of his singing, pulsing against the upper notes of his register is particularly potent on Mbueguel Is All, a reflective chordal ballad that gave ample scope for his characteristic mixture of vulnerability and power. His Arabic vocal ornamentations are harmonically rich and speak to the Islamic influences that underpin Mbalax and the social structure of Senegal. If Youssou Ndour is, in his tone, accuracy, range, clarity and passion, “born with the gift of universality” then his is a talent that transcends. It’s been said the great singers don’t just sing, they embody what they’re singing. The modern griot speaks to the pain and joy of generations, and few singers have embodied this on a world stage with greater integrity, passion and facility than Youssou.

Youssou N'Dour
Photo credit: BBC/ Mark Allan

LINKS

Prom 65a BBC Radio 3 broadcast
Prom 65a was filmed and will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Friday 7 September

Robin Denselow’s BBC Radio profile
Youssou N’Dour - Star of Africa 2001 documentary

SET LIST

1. Serigne Fallou
2. Baykat
3. Immigres
4. Money Money
5. Sama Gamou
6. Birima
7. 7 Seconds
8. Sey
9. New Africa
10. Senegal Rekki
11. Happy
12. Mbeuguel is all
13. Redemption Song

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