Youssou N'Dour, 1989
Ah the late-1980s. The "World Beat" trend had pretty much run its course, and it would be another half-decade or so before NPR began bestowing its Oprah-like blessings upon third-world flavor-of-the-month albums. This was the age of top-40 superstars exploring other musical cultures in order to grow as artists, man.
I'm being too sarcastic, because actually there was a lot of great music from that pocket of time, and because once you get past the colonial aspect of it all, really being exposed to music from around the world is a net positive for everyone listening. I wonder if Bush et al. would have a different understanding of America's place in world works if they'd been the right age to own, say, that one Ladysmith Black Mambazo album that was in every college dorm-room tape-deck right after Paul Simon's Graceland came out.
I'm also being too hard on myself, because like many others I got my introduction to the music of the great Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour from a Peter Gabriel album.
The Lion was the N'Dour album marketed to cash in on the duet "Shaking the Tree" which appeared on Gabriel's iconic So. And I bought it. And I liked it. And getting on 20 years later I still like it.
I'm no expert in the music called mbalax, but I do have a lot of appreciation for it. The music, whether in fast or slow tempo, has a percolating energy that derives from the overlapping polyrhythmic textures (the same kind of dynamic that you might find in Afrocuban musics or funk, for example, but of course with different kinds of rhythms). The instrumentation usually includes the kind of percussion I associate with Malian griot tradition, layered with a standard drum kit, and then the electric guitars, keyboards, and horn section one might find in afropop. The bass lines in particular are delightfully syncopated and keep the music pushing forward. N'Dour's voice often just sails above it all, winding and stretching and expanding. But just as often he dips down into a growl or a declamatory cadence.
I find that the transitions between these vocal "states" form some of the most compelling moments in the music. It's as if he's hinting at a path between the base guttural body and the soaring unlimited spirit. This is very dramatic in the title track, a rocking number that has one of those little pre-chorus "ramp up" sections that's so perfectly suited to its function it should be used as a model in songwriting classes. "Bamako" has a slithery chord progression over lots of talking drum - N'Dour sings on this one with a presence that's somehow bombastic and intimate at once (still trying to figure out how he manages that). I think my favorite of all the songs is "Bes," which is a beautiful minor-key 12/8 soundscape for a while. Then when the female back-up vocalists come in with their gently rising "oooh"s and the bass starts to pop a little, it transforms into something hauntingly gorgeous. There's even a real bridge section that keeps you on the edge of your seat waiting for the return of the chorus - but when we get there the backup vocalists launch into this little counterpoint on the words "don't forget me," which is somehow all the more intense for its control and reserve.
I'd be remiss not to mention lyrics here. N'Dour sings in Wolof (a Senegalese language), French, and English, often blending all three in a single song. Liner notes have translations of the lyrics into both English and French, and that's where I discovered that the song "My Daughter/Sama Doom" is basically a reworking of Yeats' "A Prayer for My Daughter," with a refrain that is achingly full of parental anxiety: "My daughter, do not follow your heart."