I suppose it's part of getting old that you find most new music superficial and derivative and really love reissues and classic material from the period when you were young. I didn't grow up in Africa in the '60s, but I must have had a doppelgänger, and no doubt there is some 60-ish African guy who is into Kinks, Cream and Small Faces as much as I am into Baobab, Balla and Bembeya. Teranga is a new label out of Senegal and I have to say I wish them every success because their aim is to reissue little-known gems from the golden age as well as some newcomers to the West African music scene. Their debut disc features Idrissa Diop and his Sahel band from the period 1969 to 1976, and it is a sure-fire winner. The label is the brainchild of a Greek music lover Adamantios Kafetzis who regularly visits Senegal looking for rare vinyl or neglected artists and their "lost" tapes. Obviously it is our duty to support him in this endeavour by buying the discs, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. In the sixties the predominant sound in Senegal was Cuban, heralded by singer Laba Sosseh and Nigerian saxophonist Dexter Johnson. Kafetzis can attest to this because he notes, modestly, "Because I have collected almost all the records and cassettes released in Senegal, I have listened to all the musical phases within its development." Clearly he knows whereof he speaks. For him the height of the music came in 1975 with three albums: Bamba by Sahel, Bitaa Baane by Le Diamono, and Daida by Xalam. Among them, he asserts, Sahel was the top band. Cheikh Tidiane Tall was chef d'orchestre, known for playing guitar and organ, often simultaneously. Thierno Koité, today with Orchestra Baobab, is on saxophone. Vocalists included René Cabral, Seydina Wade, and Idrissa Diop. Their major contribution was to bring the sabar & tama drums to the salsa sound thereby creating Mbalax, which grew to dominate Senegalese music in the 1980s. Kafetzis was determined to bring his passion to the larger world and went to Senegal to find Diop. Not only did he find the master tape for the Bamba album, it contained a bunch of great unreleased material. Idy Diop saw what was happening with this enthused Greek and turned over an unreleased 1976 tape of Sahel, half of which is heard here for the first time. There's a kindler gentler mbalax brought to us on the mellow sax of Thierno and the intricate guitar leads of Tidiane Tall, but there's also storming mbalax and also classic Senegalese salsa, including a great cover of Larry Harlow's "Caridad," recorded live in Club Sangomar, far removed from its origins, literally and musically. But after Salsa, Soul music made a huge impact on the whole continent & Idy moved to Paris. Considering these are two-track recordings, done live with two mikes, they are far better than a lot of Senegalese stuff I've heard that was taken from sandy cassettes.


By an odd coincidence I put on an old favourite CD the other night: Senegal Flash: Banjul, part of a series of Senegalese oldies published by Syllart in 1995. It has three well-known tracks on it: "Jalo" by Etoile de Dakar, "Litti Litti" by Star Band Number One, and "Doomou baaye," a Baobab number familiar from Bamba. But some of the other tracks jump out: those by Ouza and Guelewar in particular. A net search revealed that 48 tracks from the Senegal Flash series are available (since Jan 20, 2011) for download on Amazon. If you can stand the quality of the Amazon MP3s, which are downsampled to 256 kbps like iTunes, then you can put together a decent compilation from all this material. You presumably have the Baobab and Etoile de Dakar material which has been reissued numerous times, and probably all the Number One stuff too (which came out on three CDs from Dakar Sound and then a double disc from Syllart in 2010), but that leaves at least two really stellar bands, Ouza and Guelewar, for your excitement and delectation. There's also Super Diamono (with 3 tracks) and Ifang Bondi (formerly the Super Eagles) who have 5 tracks scattered throughout; however their leader Babou Jobe claimed they never got paid for this material from Sylla. There's a great track by Super Diamono called "Yamate nelaw," and for no comprehensible reason I suddenly thought of "In a broken dream" by Python Lee Jackson, a song buried deep in my subconscious, but one of the great early 70s stoner guitar solos. Though this cut -- "Yamate nelaw"-- is not in the reissued set, there are lots of Super Diamono albums out there, since both Omar Pene & Ismael Lo went on to fame.

The original Senegal Flash issue consisted of six CDs: I bought four and skipped two that had a little too much programmed drums and synthesizer. Two of the original albums, Kaolack & Ndar are reissued just as they came out 15 years ago. The others have been abridged. Typical of Sylla he adds a few tracks and changes the names of others to make you think you don't have it, but I have fallen for that trick before.

Guelewar's great track on Banjul, "Tasito," is the title cut of a French LP. They are a fine outfit and lists three albums by them. And three excellent tracks from "Tasito" were included in the Flash series: the title cut, and the B-side, "Djaraama," and "Kele Fasane." The title track from their third album, "Warteef Jigeen," is also included along with "Mamadu Bitike" from the same album (Disafrique DARL 007). Also, on Ndar, from their "Sama Yaye Demna N'Darr" disc comes the title cut and "Njarama." These seven excellent tracks are well worth hearing though only 3 are currently on amazon. Leader Moussa Ngom later joined Super Diamono, further popularizing the Afro-Manding sound. Another Gambian, Laba Sosseh, became a huge star in Senegal with his purer version of the Cuban sound.

From Ouza comes nine tracks & to my surprise there are 20 tracks by him available on amazon. "Wethe (Solitude)" (mis-spelled here) came out in 1980 on Jambaar Productions. "Bayina music" is also drawn from that disc. "Nobel" was a single and presumably a big hit. It has a weirdly high women's chorus but is a very catchy ballad with good sax. The fame that followed Pape Seck and Youssou escaped Ouza (a.k.a. Ousmane Diallo) because of his overtly political songs which were often banned from the airwaves.

Senegal Flash: Kaolack (same as Syllart CD 38905 2)
This kicks off with the moving "Xam Xam" of Ifang Bondi; "Bouba" by Ouza is another great track. Orchestra Sahel's "Bamba" is a bit shrill, or perhaps it's the harsh recording. Named for the club they played in, Sahel included Cheikh Tidiane Tall, singer Sedina Wade, and Idrissa Diop. The soul & jazz influences are most evident in their work. The exquisite Star Number One tracks (with Yakhya Fall's haunting guitar) and "Man kouma xol" by Etoile de Dakar (classic mbalax from Youssou) must be in everyone's collection by now. "Douniya" by Ouza brings a balafon to the uptempo groove. A solid set.

Senegal Flash: Dakar
I didn't buy this one originally because the Coumba Gawlo tracks mostly have too much synth on them, except "Seytaane" which is decent. But anyone interested in Senegalese music will want to check them out along with Souleymane Faye for the second tier of mbalax bands after the Star Bands and Etoiles. ("Sogui" by Souleymane Faye is his best entry.) The original "Dakar" had fourteen tracks; two by Cheikh Lo, and two more negligible ones from Soulemane Faye & Pape Djiby Ba. The best track on here is "Reuw Reuss" by Mamadou Maiga if you are cherrypicking.

Senegal Flash: Ndar (same as Syllart CD 38906 2)
I have a post-it on my CD, left over from my DJ days, awarding three stars to half the tracks on here, and four stars to Star Number One's latin groover "Mathiaki." Pape Seck's killer cut is called "Macakki" on Number One de Number 1. Next to the opening cut, "Mamadou Bitique" of Guelewar I've written "Kicks in at 8'" because it's a long 12-minute track and takes its time getting to the point. Their "Sama yaye demna Ndar" rocks out for almost 8 minutes. "Autorail" by Baobab was on Bamba, the Stern's compilation; beside MG Experience Thiaroye I wrote "poor sound, good cut," and next to Super Diamono's "Muugn" it says "OUCH synth!" Ifang Bondi's "Xaleli Africa" got two stars and the note "reggaefied rock." The Ouza and Guelewar tracks rated highest with me, despite the synth on "Adouna."

Senegal Flash: Louga-Kaolack
(This set is a reissue of two Ouza tracks from the original Louga CD, two that are duplicated on the Kaolack CD plus three other tracks: Two by Cheikh Lo ("Bamba Bakh" has synth overload) were on Dakar, & "El Carretero" of Eric Mbacke N'Doye which is on Dakar Sound volume 1, Etoile 2000.

Senegal Flash: Ziguinchor
The original had an extra track from Cheikh Lo "Doxamden"; again the Mamadou Maiga track stands out, as well as Cheikh Lo's "Africadem."

HOMMAGE A LABBAH SOCE (Dabel Productions, Senegal)

I am still bugged by download CDs: I often find ones I've downloaded and not unpacked, or listened to but lost track of, like the excellent Maguette Dione, which would have been reviewed favorably sooner had I received a hard copy. But, as it is published in Dakar it's not likely to turn up in the local bins, no matter how hard I look. It's not earthshaking but it's certainly worthwhile. Other than "El Divorcio," the Arsenio classic, all titles are in Wolof, however you will notice the obligatory "Manisero" among other familiar riffs (in "Khol Ma Ni Maye Wayé"). Since she has been called "The Celia Cruz of Africa," (probably more for her looks than her voice) Maguette kicks off with an homage to that late bewigged lady. (OK, that was ungallant, I take it back.) Though it's apparently a new album the sound quality reminds me of those Lassissi salsa albums we all covet which are delivered in two track stereo with little mid-range and heavy bass. While this is Maguette's first solo album, she has performed with other Senegalese salseros, visited Cuba and played with Buena Vista as well as Orquestas Sublime and Aragon. She has sung with Monguito and been backed by Alfredo de la Fé. She now lives in France. She was featured on 6 albums by Thierno Kouyaté and two by Nicholas Mennem and his Super Sabador. "Li Ngay Wout Mingui Thi Mane" really cooks along. The title-cut, "Hommage à Labbah Socé," kicks out the jambs and from there on the second half of the disc is smoking.

JAMM (World Circuit WCD084)

Though he is Burkinabè, Lô's musical identity was forged in Senegal where he performed from 1978 to 84 with Ouza (check them out on the Senegal Flash series). He was born to Senegalese parents but grew up speaking Bambara, a language of neighbouring Mali. Lô converted to Mouridism, a sect of Islam that resisted the French colonizers, & he sang about his faith on his last album, Lamp Fall. It's been five years since that was released, but it was worth the wait. As carefully crafted as ever, this is a wonderful relaxed yet energetic set. I mean even on the fast numbers his tone is smooth. It's unplugged (apart from electric bass and occasional electric guitar leads) and Cheikh Lô reworks some classics from the Senegalese & Guinean repertoire, leaning more towards Cuban oldies than mbalax. Among the high-calibre sidemen here are Pee Wee Ellis & Thierno Koite on saxes plus Tony Allen on drums on two cuts. "Seyni" is a reworking of "Guantanamera," and done as a tribute to two of his heroes, (Gambian) Laba Sosseh and (Cuban) Abelardo Barroso. Just as it starts to turn into Baobab they quit. But the band also turn in a credible version of Bembeya Jazz's 1971 hit "Doni doni" (complete with pizzicato guitar), which they refer to by the opening line "Il n'est jamais trop tard (It's never too late)." Amadou Balaké's "Morico" from the 1978 album "Taximen" pops up. Another mellow cover is Doh Albert's "Moya" (from the 1979 Lassissi-produced album, "Du Belier"), which is revamped as "Ne parti pas (Don't go)." It is really pleasant to have Cheikh Lô give us this little tour of his personal jukebox: songs he grew up with, or started out singing. The band is tight but stretches out (notably the saxophonists), & Lô is in fine voice. "Dieuf Dieul," a religious song, is especially fine, but it's hard to single out tracks: the whole disc is exceptional. To promote the new album, which is still a pricy import in the US, WorldCircuit have released a free downloadable track and a bandwidth-hogging video on their website.

MUZIKR (WorldVillage 450013[s])

This is a fine set of mellow jazz-inflected Senegalese ballads, interspersed with straight-up Mbalax, for those who miss the energy that used to be manifest by Youssou Ndour, Baaba Maal etc in their youth. Carlou is a former member of the Senegalese rap group Positive Black Soul, but this traditional music is more to my taste. Youssou does make a guest appearance, a sort of Papal sanction for the youngster who is also a devotee of Cheikh Ibra Fall, beloved of the Mouride sect. They duet on "Gorée," an over-the-top folk ballad about the infamous point of departure for slaves. The message is that the Africans themselves were not blameless in this trade. (Read Mungo Park's Travels for an eye-opening account of how savage the natives were, even fighting and capturing slaves for sale between rival villages.) The faster tracks, like "Meun nako def," really fire it up. The last three cuts are the strongest: a fiery "Yaaboyo" with tama, scrapers, electric guitar, kora, &c, is outstanding.

Once Upon a Time in Senegal: The Birth of Mbalax 1979-1981 (Sterns SRCD3054-5)

Over the years Youssou Ndour has risen to become acknowledged as one of the world's greatest performers. Even though his recent EGYPT album did not do well in his native Senegal, it was a bold step and showed a master at the peak of his powers. As with fans in other countries, the old-timers of Dakar like to hear him do what he does best, even if it is an historic style. Like reggae or ragtime to their devotees, Mbalax is an old-established musical genre with a broadening fan-base. Mbalax has also grown in popularity outside Senegal, so it's a good time -- it's always a good time -- to check out the early days of Youssou when he was just one of the singers with Etoile de Dakar, who were competing with (splinter group) Star Band, (splinter of splinter) Star Number One, (hard wood, no splinters) Baobab, and others, for the box office in the Medina, on the outskirts of Dakar. (For the full spectrum of these bands back in their heyday check out Dakar Sound's compilations, such as 100% PURE DOUBLE CONCENTRE with Canari de Kaolack, the smoking Etoile 2000, Mapenda Seck, El Hadji Faye & others.) The music was emerging in competition to the Western-influenced music of Africa: Cuban, R&B, and so on, and as Mark Hudson points out in his liner notes, it was the song "Jalo" on an Island compilation that first alerted us to this undercurrent of wailing Islamic voices over talking drum that would come to captivate us. Of course material this good has not just appeared from nowhere. It has been around on vinyl and cassette, but never sounded as clean and clear as it does today, after a sonic rinsing. Here's the breakdown of new and old: If you have the 4-disc set that Stern's previously issued in the 1990s (STCD 3004, 3006, 3012, 3014) then you have most of this material already. The last two tracks of disc one and the first two tracks of disc two are the sum of a self-published LP (ET001) called "Toulou Badou Ndiaye", never before on CD; the last two cuts on disc two are from a cassette that was vol 5 in the Touba series, titled "Maleo." The first four cassettes from Touba were the basis of the four Stern's discs previously released. If you have those 4 Stern's discs you will probably want to download the 6 tracks for $6, and if you have never heard these early sides you are in for a huge treat. The additional tracks include "Tolou Badou N'diaye" which has swannee whistle on it, however that is overcome by the fuzztone guitar, played by "Grandpa" Badou N'Diaye who weaves a sinuous thread throughout the music with his hollow-body Gibson. Is it worth getting for the bonus material? Absolutely. This band was solid throughout its career and anything by them, in this sonic quality, is worth having and hearing again and again.

LA BELLE EPOQUE 1971-77 (Syllart 000361)

I was like a homing pigeon on this release except the price kept bouncing me off it. I have said before there is definitely a market for the complete works of bands like Baobab, and hopefully one day someone will restore the sound, find the historic photos and write intelligent liner notes (I am thinking of John Storm Roberts, Samy Ben Redjeb, Miles Cleret & a very few others as examples here), and give us the definitive Baobab box. So I took my junk pile to Amoeba and got $24 in credit. But the CD was $28, plus another $3 in tax. Later I was cleaning my floor and found a $5 Amoeba credit slip under the bed. Still not enough. Then I remembered there's a $1 Amoeba coupon in the Yellow Pages! I added it up. Not enough. Then a friend suggested Amazon downloads. Amazon has a deal whereby you can download the whole album for $18, saving $10 off the retail price. No booklet, but still there's the music. I listened to the samples and they didn't sound like they had been remastered. I dug out my fistful of Baobab CDs. Turns out disc B contains the complete ten tracks of ON VERRA CA (The Paris Sessions, 1978, reissued by World Circuit in 92), so you don't need those again. I found I also had a dozen of the other tracks. Some were on AFRICAN CLASSIC (from Cantos, a.k.a. Classic Titles); others on A NIGHT AT CLUB BAOBAB (Oriki). I narrowed it down to ten I didn't have. I don't see the point in recreating the Sylla sequence (They didn't even get the dates on the title right). I have copies of the Disques Buur LPs but the sound is poor. Given, too, the changed spelling of titles and different timings on the tracks I wondered if some were edits or even different versions, but couldn't tell from the samples on Amazon. What I didn't have were the tracks from Senegalese cassettes, which you know are gonna be sonic shite, but there is one rare LP in the mix: BAO 02, with some Latin titles. I ended up with a 45 minute LP-length album for ten bucks. Sadly it doesn't really add up to an album able to stand alongside the other reissues. I did get one of the songs from VISAGE DU SENEGAL for comparison. It's "Bes bo amee" and I think my burn from an LP passed on from friends is probably the same source Sylla used, because it sure doesn't sound like it came off vinyl. There are even drop-outs making you think there's a defect. "El Vagabonde" reminded me of "Take these chains," but is probably based directly on a Cuban original because the lyrics are comprehensible. "Baila mi gente" is probably taken from Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas, and "El Nuevo amor" is a cha cha cha from Orquesta Aragon. The sound is generally awful on these ex-cassette tracks (all of disc one), but the execution is fine. Issa has a lot of echo on the sax. The guitar is not as prominent as we would like but Attiso steps up on "Juana," which is from the later Paris dates. The Paris session generated the songs that became their staples: "El son te llama," & "On verra ça," remade on SPECIALIST. Bottom line: If you are a Baobab fan you have the gist of this. If you are a completist you will be disappointed to find the best tracks are already in your collection.


I haven't heard much beyond Staff Benda Bilili from my beloved Congo in ages, though I am sure there's great music being made locally, that is just not getting out. So I resort to West Africa where there is consistently great music being made and recorded. Daby Baldé is a Fula from the Casamance region in the south of Senegal but sings in French, Wolof, Mandinka, and all the local languages. Baldé now owns a nightclub in Dakar, the capital, and Riverboat Records (who released his great debut album a year or so ago) has caught his act, and preserved it for posterity. It's mellow even though there is energetic drumming, mainly because his vocals are so laid back & the mix is smooth. There is also a great sleepy sax on the session that complements the acoustic guitar. Kora and balafon fill in the background, both less evident than the steel-stringed guitar. Tracks like "Lambe leydi" are extremely hypnotic. "Le Joola" is different, I think there may even be a Congolese singer on here, he has a voice like Papa Wemba, but I got an advance copy with no credits (Hell, the backing singer sounds like Youssou, maybe I am hallucinating!@). You can check out Baldé's music video here. Apparently the disc, which comes out September 24, will include a coupon for a free drink at his club! See you there.

DAXAAR (Domino Records DNO165)

This album made a couple of UK critics' top ten lists last year so I was pleased to get it & hear the whole thing. It starts out like a mellow West African kora album but before long it has switched into a solid jazz groove in the Miles jazz-funk zone. I don't listen to much Miles Davis anymore, because back in the old days when I had a small record collection I played "Hush/Peaceful" almost daily, and some records are so engrained on your consciousness you don't really need to listen to them again. Just saying "Love will tear us apart" or "Spotlight kid" or "Elevator to the gallows" can trigger a Pavlovian response in your brain. Steve Reid's DAXAAR reminds me a bit of that era of Miles, but it's original and engaging enough for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. The subtitle is "Recorded in Africa" as if to say, Well yes, it sounds like New York, but it's actually Senegal. Reid was drummer on Miles' "Tutu" sessions; he also played with James Brown (on "Popcorn") and his music credentials include Motown (for Martha and the Vandellas' smash hit "Dancin' in the street"), Arthur Blyth's "Metamorphosis," the Apollo Theatre pit band, Marvin Gaye, and even Fela. He spent three years drumming in Africa; on his return to the US he was thrown in the slammer for not showing up to his draft board for the Vietnamese war. Recently he has played with the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. The mood of DAXAAR comes from the keyboards played by Boris Netsvetaev and the synth played by Kieran Hebden, neither of whom is African. The kora, trumpet, guitars and percussionist are, however, from the continent. After the long and moody "DaBronxKar" we get to another moodly piece (that's moody and noodly) "Big G's family" which starts with gender (hard "g"), the Balinese metallophone, then after the groove gets entrenched, some acid guitar blazes forth courtesy of Jimi Mbaye from Youssou Ndour's Super Etoile de Dakar. On bass is Dembel Diop who played with Omar Pene's Super Diamono, as well as Ouza et ses Ouzettes, one of the lesser-known great bands from Senegal. The Hammond organ wielded by Boris gives this album a classic sound, it reminds me a bit of the Hank Jones & Cheikh Tidiane Seck album Sarala I love so much. Yes it is a bit dated in a jazz funk bag, but there is plenty of experiment and spontaneity to keep you coming back to it.

MADE IN DAKAR (World Circuit WCD078)

Orchestra Baobab serves up 11 choice cuts of prime Senegalese soul. Originally they took griot songs and Latin covers and brought them into a modern Senegalese idiom, forging a unique sound, which has cantering rhythms, great harmonies, soaring vocals, exquisite filigree guitar leads and jazzy saxes, all in one sweet package. "Papa Ndiaye," the classic opener, was first heard on BAWOBAB 75 (though it had been in their repertoire since 1968). "Beni Baraale" is a cover of a Bembeya Jazz song, & goes back to the roots of Baobab when some of the members played in the Star Band de Dakar, and a memorable night in 1969 when they shared a bill with Bembeya. Assane Mboup, one of Youssou's protégés steps up for "Nijaay," a reworking of a song by Laye Mboup with a bustling arrangement by Attiso who can be heard off in the corner soloing madly. (In fact he even throws a bit of Bach's D minor Fugue at it!) "Ami kita bay" is also new to me, though it has the familiar Baobab ingredients, as mbalax and salsa meet on the dancefloor. "Cabral" (Homage to Guinean freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral), which uses the "Guantanamera" changes, is one of their most enduring songs. It has been anthologized thrice before: Günter Gretz put it on ROOTS & FRUIT (Popular African Music ADC304) in 1999; the Sheer Sound compilation in their African Classics series led off with it, and the Oriki Music disc "A Night at Club Baobab" also featured it. "Sibam," the busy number which follows it, was on the Sheer compilation, as well as ON VERRA CA, the World Circuit compilation that collected the 1978 Paris Sessions. Thirty years later it's hotter than ever, with sabar and tama drums kicking it up a notch. There's an added trumpet solo: it's great to hear more rather than less brass instruments in the mix. There are some new songs in the classic Baobab mode, but it's another oldie that scorches the speakers: "Ndéleng Ndéleng," by Thione Seck. (Seck left Baobab to form Le Raam Daan, a band he still fronts.) Assane Mboup delivers this, sounding a lot like Youssou. Thio Mbaye's sabar drums are busily driving the dancers then Attiso steps up for a magical, inventive solo where he demonstrates how he can run rings around any guitarist alive. (The earlier 7.5 minute version, sung by Seck, can be heard on AFRICAN CLASSICS but it is a thin recording. Here they retain the big room echo, but it is a much more dynamic recording.) "Bikowa," a calypso by Issa Cissoko is a gorgeous ballad, with a hint of "Stormy Weather." Issa's alto playing is great. "Colette," the final cut, dedicated to Attiso's wife, is another slow swaying dance groove, with a hot trombone solo. Attiso teases little moans out of his ax, dedicating the song to Carlos Santana.

ROKKU MI ROKKA (Nonesuch 266044-2)

Somehow we got Youssou Ndour backwards. He hit big with his first solo albums, including IMMIGRES, and we felt privileged to see him open for Peter Gabriel, but then after THE LION he started to try to crossover to western audiences and when "Shaking the tree" came out a lot of us threw our arms up in despair. Instead of keeping up with Youssou we went back to his early career with Etoile de Dakar and spent a few years exploring his roots. In concert he was always great, when he had Etoile de Dakar backing him, and it was a treat to hear them and watch the big rubberleg dancing. So I just assumed he was putting out the real product in Senegal and sooner or later we would hear it again. It's true he still puts out albums in Paris but they are generally live in concert and therefore rehashes of older material. He has more "Greatest Hits" and "Best of" albums than any other African artist. He came out of his slump with the amazing EGYPT and now has returned after a fashion to the mbalax sound that was his launch pad. "Sama Gammu" is a classic, in fact it sounds familiar, so maybe some of this stuff did come out on cassette earlier. There's the added attraction of Bassekou Kouyate on xalam. By track 4, "Bajjan," we are back in the mbalax groove with great speedy tama. There are a few raving tracks that seem like they've been judiciously spliced in the studio, which is fine, though they always leave off or fade up at a great moment and you long to hear the unedited take. Interestingly, "Létt ma" (indecision)" sounds like a country and western tune. Sure Africans were listening to Jimmy Rogers in the 50s and Jim Reeves in the 60s, but it's surprising to hear the burl of the country guitar so well incorporated into the riff here. There's also a southern (hillbilly as opposed to country) feeling to "Daabaax," again with Bassekou Kouyate. Tell me I am crazy but I hear echoes of "Ode to Billy Joe" in this! Things fall apart. "Xel (think)" is a bit too much of a rock anthem and starts to unravel (even though the backup singers are from Orchestra Baobab), but then "Wake up (Africa calling)" derails the album for me. I wish he had left off that last rap track with Neneh Cherry: it totally kills the mood. Nevertheless, this is the best thing Youssou has done (EGYPT aside) for years.


It was unthinkable in 1989, when PIRATE'S CHOICE came out, that one day we would have a shelf of 7 or 8 officially released CDs by the incomparable Orchestre Baobab du Senegal. Yet here is another gem that carries forward a few songs we already know and sprinkles in one or two rarities to make the determined collector covet it, even if only to compare the sound quality with their bootlegs of the rare vinyl albums from which the additional tracks were taken.

Young Dr Chris, on one of his trips to Senegal, found me a copy of their White Album, the one recorded in Paris called ON VERRA CA. It was thrashed and far from white: it had ball-point writing all over it, but YDC thought I would enjoy owning it, which I do, though it hasn't been on the turntable (I once broke a needle on a rare Jamaican 45 that I swear had ganja seeds and stems mixed into the vinyl!). Anyway he enclosed a New Yorker cartoon with the album: a couple are entering the Metropolitan Museum's ethnic gallery with a goat on a leash. There are huge Easter Island heads and such-like fetishes and totems standing around as they approach a guard and enquire whether they can make a small offering to one of their gods? Baobab's albums became like those totems and talismata extracted from a distant culture. But through their music that culture is not alien and remote, requiring anthropological enquiry, instead it is alive and becomes part of the fabric of our own culture, and this is where music plays a vital role in connecting people across continents and generations.

The twelve tracks on here include five -- "Cabral," "Liiti Liiti," "Diarabi," "Soulemane," & "On verra ça," -- which were included on the most recent compilation, UN NUIT AU JANDEER. "Tante Marie" & "Sibam" appeared on ON VERRA CA. The title cut on the World Circuit release is a different version of this song; here it begins with what sounds like axé drumming! "Mbeugel," is a different version of "Wane ma maguiss," which also appears on ON VERRA CA. "Ndeleng ndeleng," "Yen Say," "Mbaar" & "Ndoiougou Ndoiougou" have not been on CD before.

In short, half the tracks are new to CD. Overall they sound better than the recent Oriki release. While sonically they are good, musically they are incredible. Baobab passed into legend long ago. They were the house band of the Club Baobab in the chic part of downtown Dakar. Their guitarist, Barthelemy Attiso was a law student who financed his studies by playing guitar in the evening. The core was formed around members of the Star Band, lured away from the rival Club Miami in Dakar. They mixed Caribbean tunes with Wolof vocals and Manding rhythms. Laye Mboup, their lead singer, died in a car crash and two younger singers were introduced, Ndiouga Dieng and Thione Seck. But at the end of the 70s when the club closed the band gradually faded into obscurity as members drifted away to new gigs. A decade after their break-up the Pirate's Choice album appeared and a new generation of European kids began to listen to the band. They returned to the top with a 2002 recording and a world tour.

Sheer from South Africa has been putting together a whole series of classic albums, including Bembeya Jazz and Ismael Lo which I didn't pick up because I believe I have all the originals, but I will have to double-check. This Baobab release is a treasure to enjoy again and again.


Here's a treat. I am a huge fan of Orchestra Baobab and have their 7 CDs (including both versions of Pirate's Choice) plus the pre-final mix of Specialist in all styles, and six of their LPs. Three of my albums are by "Bawobab" from 1975 on the Disques BUUR label and they are the source material for half of this new compilation. However the advantage here is cleaned-up sound and the addition of equally rare tracks from two albums that came out on another French label, Musicafrique, Ndeleng, ndeleng and Un nuit au Jandeer in 1977-8. Though the sound is not ideal it is superior to most Senegalese recording of the time, which was generally done live in a club on a cheap cassette deck, by the sound of it. These recordings do seem to be board tapes and are not overmodulated. By now some of the titles are familiar, "Jin ma jin ma," has been rerecorded by the band on their Specialist album, but it's a thrill to hear the earlier version. Barthelemy Attisso is undoubtedly one of the most creative guitarists living. Then you have that great Latin-come-home beat and the vocals of Rudy Gomis, Balla Sidibe & Thione Seck, plus the great sax of Issa Cissokho. In addition to the Cuban flavour there are also folkloric tunes on here. One of their greatest tracks, "Cabral," which was included on Popular African Music's compilation ROOTS & FRUIT appears again here. Before buying this I asked a couple of record store buyers if they knew it and both said "it was just a reissue." I think they are confusing it with another Baobab reissue (black & white cover) called Classic titles, put out by Syllart, but this is stuff you probably don't have. Three of the tracks (1, 2, 11) come from Ndeleng, ndeleng (1978) and three from Un nuit au jandeer. "Saf mama den" was on Bawobab 75 (Disques BUUR BRLP 001 1975), along with "Sutukum," "Mansa," and "Am Saxul" which have previously been gathered. From Visage du Senegal (BRLP004) on the same label comes the funk-inspired "Kelen ati leen" & "Seeri koko." I've heard this latter, maybe live, with tons of echoplex and reverb on it, this take is a little more subdued but still breaks out. It has almost a reggae beat to it, perhaps best described as an African shuffle. Then there's a pair from Adduna Jaral Naawo (BRLP005) which has the smoky original of the song that became "Dée moo wóor." There's "Sey" from Gouye Gui de Dakar vol 2, and finally "Yolanda" from Gouye Gui de Dakar vol 4. This is truly a cherry-picked Best of the Rest compilation. Until the complete remastered Baobab boxed set comes along, I would say it is essential: the best African reissue of 2006.


Magou and his band Dakar Transit are a well-rounded group of musicians from Senegal who play light folk music and can also kick out the jams for a rocking groove. The title translates as "Africa wake up!" and is a call to Africans to stop fighting and sacrificing their children. The sound on this track is actually more samba and bossa nova than African. The rocker is "Ling ling (womaniser)" which says "He has photocopied his heart and never parts with the original." Although it is credited to Magou it is identical to an mbalax song by Africando. This is such a common occurence I can't be bothered to dig out the albums and compare them to find the original, but let's say he has photocopied the music for this one. Nevertheless it is a great groove. I hesitate about the middle of the album when he gets to "Gorée" which, despite the subject, is a lounge ballad in French and sounds like M.O.R. radio. In fact it's the lighter stuff that has me on the brink on this one. The band is accomplished but the sound is predominantly folk guitar with wispy vocals. I prefer it when they break out the tama & conga drums.

KETUKUBA (Stern's STCD1103)

African salsa was pioneered by producer Aboudou Lassissi and a series of albums he released on Sacodis in Abidjan in the 70s. The first Africando album, TROVADOR (Stern's 1993), was the apotheosis of the style and they continue to deliver consistently great music that combines the sound of traditional New York salsa of the 70s with great Wolof, Manding and other African vocals. I dont know how many volumes Africando are up to (uh, 15?), but, like Buena Vista Social Club, if you create a band of old-timers you are going to have a high attrition rate, and since Gnonnas Pedro has died, this latest volume is dedicated to him. Gnonnas was quite a phenomenon and had disappeared for a long time before Africando brought him back. I had the incredible CD La Combination de Gnonnas and the disappointing sequels, but then my friend Antuan gave me a couple of his LPs with his Dadjes Band (No, I am not putting them on EBAY) and I got the picture: this guy really was one of the greats. The title cut is a Gnonnas composition, the sound is consistent with the preceding albums, and if you like the Africando sound you will not be disappointed. There are great ticking timbales, big horn choruses and superlative vocals darting about on top of a hot mix. Occasionally they slow down so you can hear fine muted trumpet, tres, or Nelson Hernandez's tasty baritone sax. It says there are 10 original compositions, but there are two covers (Franco and Fania All Stars) and track 2, "Malawoo" is almost certainly an old Etoile de Dakar or Numero Un de Dakar number. Maybe they wrote new words to avoid paying royalties. Cuban legend Alfredo Rodriguez contributed piano to three tracks before his death. Continuity with Lassissi and the New York salsa of the 70s is maintained with the presence of Amadou Balake who sings the opener. I have one of his Lassissi albums (LS8-78) when he was into his James Brown period. But Africando is a showband with differing front men which keeps it vital. The novelty here is the appearance of the great Madilu, star of OK Jazz in the late 80s, who sings "Mario," the Franco epic about a gigolo. Twice as long as the other tracks, this time it has Luis Quintero on timbales to shake up the dancefloor instead of one of Luambo's jagged two-fingered leads. The mood shifts suddenly with balafon and a return to Senegal with Sekouba Bambino singing an invitation to dance. His "Fatalikou," a bolero in Wolof, is one of the highlights of the album. Newcomer vocalist Basse Saar from Senegal pours it on while Nelson Jaimes on muted trumpet adds a mournful counterpoint. At the midpoint it starts to build into a throbbing guajira. This new Africando is not only an homage to Gnonnas, it is a credit to his memory.

LAMP FALL (World Circuit/Nonesuch 79938-2)

Its taken me a while to adjust to the broad scope of the new Cheikh Lô album. I guess he has been living the good life because you can feel it in the opening cut which has boulevard cafe accordion and is so mellow you are soon nodding out. It's a remake of a Bembeya Jazz oldie from 1973. Next up is the title cut which seems to go off at the wrong tempo, it's a jerky arrangement with sax and drums out of synch. The kit drummer is just banging away in his own hard rock-meets-jazz universe while everyone else is ornamenting the vocal. Weird. I am wondering if the album could have been sequenced better. "Xale," another reprise, is more on the mark with Lô's delicate vocal juxtaposed with good horn arrangements and well-balanced tama. About fifteen minutes into the album, the old Cheikh Lô delivers the magic we expect on "Kele Magni." But then another twist. Suddenly he's in Salvador da Bahia with the forty axé drums of Ilê Aiyê laying down a wall of sound on delayed reverb. There's great dubby trombone from Bocato and an electric guitar that sounds like an organ. He cuts back to a quartet for "Sante Yalla" which has Hilaire Penda on bass and Lamine Faye on guitar as well as two percussionists. "Pee Wee" Ellis, arranger for James Brown in the funky days of "Cold Sweat," is back on sax for "Toogayu Mbedd." Next up is "N'galula," a soukous song from the early 70s that was a hit for Elegance-Jazz, redone as funky mbalax. Lô is from Burkina Faso but has the Senegalese sound down cold. His band also turn in a credible reggae sound on "Bamba mo woor" with Pee Wee again, and Bigga Morrison on Hammond B3. There's a second version of "Kelle magni" with gratuitous synthesizer frills and another foray to Brasil with Carlinhos Brown's back-up singers to end. Like churrasqueria, the meat of this album gives you plenty to chew on.


Here's another adventure in cross-border rambling. Nuru Kane comes from the Medina in Senegal but his spiritual roots are in the Gnawan music of Marrakech. To compound matters this CD was recorded in the Scottish borders on the banks of the River Tweed where I once spent an unmemorable summer in a tent keeping out of the rain. Spending a dreech day listening to driving rain and staring at white canvas is once way to attain samadhi, another is to listen to trance music. Multi-instrumentalist Nuru is an exponent of the guimbri, a three-stringed bass instrument made famous by Mahmoud Guinia and Mahjoub de Marrakech. A follower of Baye Fall (Senegalese disciple of Islamist Cheikh Amadou Bamba), Nuru is one of the Africans with dreads and patchwork clothing that signals their devotion. I believe the clothing migrates towards a solid colour (green or white) as the devotee progresses up the spiritual ladder to enlightenment. At least that's what I remember from my encounters with Sufis in Sudan. Moving to Paris, Nuru teamed up with other expatriates and created a hybrid of Senegalese and Gnawan music that is fresh and exciting. Thierry Fournel joined him on oud and guitar and Djeli Makan Sissoko contributed his n'goni and tama drum. Their group is called Bayefall Gnawa but this album is under Nuru's name and includes other musicians: producer Martin Swan on violin and accordion, and Penny Bont on Welsh flute. The Gnawan stuff is the strongest material on here but it gets diffuse on tracks like "Djoloff, Djoloff" where the violin doesn't fit. The album is almost all acoustic, however the folky guitar on "Talibe" is a bit too Frenchified for my taste, but overall there are some fine moments.


Here is a sure-fire winner and the best thing to come out of Senegal in ages. Sure we get to see Youssou Ndour every couple of years, even Orchestre Baobab, but they belong to a style of music that is essentially Senegalese oldies. While Daara J and other youngsters are going in new directions there is still a place for great traditional music interpreted by younger musicians that is neither Mbalax, salsa, nor hip hop hybrids. Baldé is in his thirties and hails from Cassamance in the south of the country. Cassamance is situated between Gambia and Guinea-Bissau and is cut off from Northern Senegal. Historically it had extensive dealings with Portugal rather than France so has a unique musical heritage (remember Toure Kunda!?). Baldé was drawn to music at an early age but his parents objected so he went into exile, driving taxis in neighbouring countries while writing songs and learning to play guitar. His interest in the Fulani roots and culture of his homeland is paramount and he has begun to share his passion in concerts in Dakar and in Belgium. He sings in Mandinka and Wolof, as well as Fula, the choice of language calculated for maximum effect in the type of song he is performing. His electric band is augmented by Europeans on violin, accordion and sax and they blend nicely in with the kora, guitars and percussion. The fiddler is Wouter Vandenabeele who has a real affinity for the songs. Baldé has a fine voice and is an excellent writer and arranger. There's uncredited flute and good djembe playing on here. It's a mellow, thoughtful album and very engaging. Though his stated aim is to spread traditional music to young Senegalese, I predict he will find a widening international audience hungry for the same thing.


An mbalax pioneer, Thione Seck is perhaps best known for his work with Le Raam Daan. While Seck is a huge star in Senegal and his cassettes sell well, outside Senegal his cassettes are hard to find and he remains in the shadow of his more famous compatriots. However I predict ORIENTATION will win him a new legion of loyal fans, as he has produced an album with a broader appeal that is likely to cross over to the wider Arabic world as well as fans of world music fusion. Yes, world music fusion is a dicey arena. I always wince when I hear about collaborations like those you typically see on Peter Gabriel's RealWorld label where Celtic fiddlers and Venezuelan harpists and Chinese flute players meet to lay down tracks. Not that the results are always bad, but like an ostrich omelette they are always a surprise. Last year Youssou Ndour surprised us when he recorded with a big Egyptian orchestra. Now we get Thione Seck's ORIENTATION where he goes a little further and includes Bollywood musicians in his mix and the result is a genuine triumph. Before you accuse Seck of jumping on Youssou's bandwagon, and attempting to upstage his old rival from their Etoile de Dakar and Star Band de Dakar days, be aware that Seck has been working on this album since 1999 and it was finished three years ago. Seck has always had an interest in Bollywood music as well as the closer-to-home sounds coming out of Egypt from the likes of Oum Kalthoum or Abdel Halim Hafez. He travelled to Madras to record with local musicians and you sense the looming presence of Kishore Kumar in some of his vocal swoops. Opera-like and intense, the CD keeps peaking. It's appeal is potentially broader than Youssou's recent EGYPT and it certainly deserves a place alongside it as a triumphant breakthrough for African music in the 21st century.

NO. III DE NUMBER 1 (PAM adc 307)

Günter Gretz is a one-man record label operating out of Frankfurt. When he goes into the control room, I imagine he slips off his jacket and underneath is wearing a Superman costume. He really is the Superhero of World Music, keeping it alive with well-selected and consistently brilliant reissues. His African Dancefloor Classics series, subtitled "Reminiscin' in Tempo" is the core of any good collection of African classics. NUMBER III DE NUMBER 1 is the latest installment in the Senegalese salsa/mbalax story of Star Band and Number One de Dakar. Number One were the main rivals to Orchestre Baobab in the 1970s. Both had similar sounds apart from the guitars. Baobab's Barthelemy Attiso is the consummate technician and plays quietly but his understated leads creep up on you till you are totally engulfed in his sound. Yahya Fall is more of a chancer: he uses dramatic effects so tube screamer and fuzz-tone pedals pop on when you least expect them and jarringly remind you of acid rock. Star Band are well-known for applying the traditional Wolof instruments sabar and talking drum to Cuban rumba rhythms. Yahya Fall joined the Star Band in 1970 but quit 6 years later, feeling he wasn't getting his due from bandleader Ibra Kassé. He left with other disgruntled musicians and they formed a new band called Starband Numero Un, claiming they had the original members aboard. But Ibra Kassé had the Minister of Internal Affairs on his side and the breakaway group were told to think of another name and leave Star Band alone. Thus they switched the Numero Un to English and became Number One de Dakar. Founder Pape Seck (beloved for his work with Africando) was chef d'orchestre. Other vocalists included Mar Seck and Nicolas Mennheim. Ali Penda Ndoye also joined on trumpet. But don't expect slick New York-style salsa horn charts, these guys ain't the Fania All-Stars: they have their own ideas about horn playing so there is some very ragged (but charming) soloing on here. And the guitarwork shimmers. If you were disappointed that you didn't get to see Africando after the death of Gnonnas Pedro derailed their last tour, you can console yourself with this album. It's not all Cuban, there's a lot of loping mbalax with outrageous outbursts on the tama by Mamané Fall and those smoky questioning vocals echoing in the distance while the guitars chop about and the horns make tentative replies to the melody.

The previous releases of Number One have been on Dakar Sound. The original "Yaye boy," "Guajira ven" and "Walo" were on No 1 DE No 1 (Dakar Sound 6 1996), a must-have album. The follow-up, No 2 DE No 1, came out in 2000. In addition they were anthologized on two crucial Dakar Sound compilations, THEIR THING & LATIN THING. Pape Seck's insistent "Nongui, nongui" was the opener on THE MUSIC IN MY HEAD compiled by Mark Hudson. It also crops up on ESCALE DE SENEGAL VOL 1, along with "Walo" and "Say Konntaa," and another Dakar Sound volume 100% PURE DOUBLE CONCENTRÉ. Gretz has considerately avoided duplicating any of these releases. He draws from nine cassettes and LPs to produce a genuine "Best of the rest" compilation. I know Pape Seck's "Liti-liti" because it occurs on a more obscure series of Senegalese compilations: the SENEGAL FLASH series which came out in France, as does "Ndaga seri boy" from the MAAM BAMBA album, in which Pape Seck urges the audience to dance the Ndagga with him. So put on your clogs and ah-one and ah-two...

EGYPT (Nonesuch 79694-2)

While I am not totally ecstatic about the new Youssou Ndour CD, it's a strong effort and I applaud him for doing it. Last year he cancelled his annual US tour in protest against Baby Bush's fundamental Xtian crusade against Islam. Cynics said there were more pragmatic reasons for the cancellation: advance sales were flat and he was having the usual hassles trying to get visas for his entourage. But now he has gone one step beyond and made the most fundamentally Islamic album of his career. To do so he went to everyone's favorite Muslim watering hole (because they sell beer!): Egypt, and got a 14-piece orchestra of the kind you hear in Oum Kalthoum records. It's a very interesting album, if a little shaky in places, but it's a darn sight better than the "Shaking the Tree" piffle he was doing for so long. Formerly, when he couldn't commit himself to Western pop he re-did his old Etoile de Dakar stuff and the fans were generally thrilled. But this is a new departure. In fact he started the album in 1999 but was unsure about its reception until the US invasion of Iraq, then decided it was time to stand up for his own beliefs. To which we can add, Amen. There are songs about Cheick Amadou Bamba and Cheick Ibrahim Fall whom we know to be marabout saints from Senegal. The opener is sweet and light but then we get a more Morrocan sound for "Shukran Bamba (Thanks Bamba)", a song to his personal saint, the sufi and founder of the Mouridiya sect, who died in 1927. It opens with the breathy woodwind sound on arghul, a double-reeded instrument, then the big fiddle section looms in with the dancing girls stamping their feet impatiently in the wings. His voice is distinct even when the slur of mushy strings envelopes it. He probably will not tour with this group, but the album is worth hearing.

BOOMERANG (Wrass 105)

Regular readers know I consider French rap to be one of the tortures of Hell so I amazed myself by enjoying the latest release from Daara J called BOOMERANG. (They missed a great opportunity to call it Daara J. BOOM D.A.) The group is from Senegal which has over 3000 rap groups, so I guess it's the happening thing. It's not all good but the first two tracks really impressed me and it's the first time I have listened to an entire album of African hip-hop more than once. Of course I do tend to shut out the rapping parts but the arrangments are more than interesting. "Bomerang" is good and the next track "Esperenza" is catchy. Track three is where I begin to have problems. A pastiche of Bob Marley lyrics is not a reasonable excuse for a song. By track 8, "Hip hop civilization," it becomes quite irritating. There's a reprise of "Esperanza" featuring Cuban maverick toaster Sergent Garcia, which serves to confirm that it is the best track on here. If you buy an album for one or two tracks check this out, otherwise wait for it to appear on a compilation.

(Rough Guide RGNET 1070CD)

The indefatigable World Music Network has launched another set of African covers of Cuban music under the title THE ROUGH GUIDE TO AFRO-CUBA. It's pretty irresistible -- the idea I mean. This joins several other compilations including AFRICAN SALSA on Earthworks, SALSA AFRICA on the Tinder label, and Syllart's compilation, AFRICAN SALSA RUMBA which was kind of a "Roots of Africando" set and is the only one of the four that doesn't feature Super Cayor.

The Earthworks compilation from 1998 showcased Senegalese salsa, in particular Pape Fall and Super Cayor de Dakar. There was a remix of Africando's smash "Yaye Boy." The four tracks by Super Cayor had appeared on Popular African Music in 1997 on the brilliant album SOPENTÉ. The Tinder compilation had a few plums, and dug out classics from Les Bantous and Gnonnas Pedro (who later resurfaced in Africando), as well as Super Cayor's "Xamsa bopp." Different tracks from Africando, Gnonnas Pedro and Les Bantous were found on the Syllart compilation which ended with Franco's classic take on Eddie Palmieri's "Café." Syllart also included Grand Kalle and Rochereau.

The new Rough Guide throws in a few Cubans for good measure, as well as some collaborations, Samba Mapangala with Patato, Manu Dibango with Cuarteto Patria. And once again they trot out the classic "Xamsa Bopp" by Super Cayor. Surprises? Well, the Super Eagles from the Gambia are pretty obscure. One of their albums came up on EBAY last year and went through the roof. Their song "Mandali" was covered by Africando. After they broke up the singer and guitarist formed Ifang Bondi. The good news, if you don't want to compete with the folks with more money than brains on EBAY, is that RetroAfric has a Super Eagles collection.

While this is the only one of the four compilations to include Cubans I think there's a case for just having Africans doing Cuban music as the theme of a compilation. The Lazaro Ros track demonstrates the deep African roots of Cuban ritual music, but that's a whole different story. The E.T. Mensah track is rather slight. I'm not knocking this compilation for, if anything, it sounds a lot like a radio set I might put together and it's nice to hear someone else do it, though about halfway through I would have thrown in African Jazz, African Fiesta or Les Bantous and gone off in another direction.

(Rough Guide RGNET 1060CD)

A focused view of some of the best contemporary African pop can be heard on THE ROUGH GUIDE TO SENEGAL AND GAMBIA. There's a good balance between folkloric pieces and electric pop. This Rough Guide kicks off with Cheikh "Rattling" Lô's hit about Senegalese youth. It also includes Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck's atmospheric "Loodo" from DJAM LEELI; the rocking "Nguisstal" by Le Raam Daan that kicked off the great Sterns' compilation STREETS OF DAKAR; Orchestra Baobab's spooky "Mamadou Bamba" from BAMBA; and Youssou Ndour's jamming "Letter" from an album called BEST OF 80S. If you don't have these albums, this Rough Guide will make you want to add them to your collection. This is not just one for the neophytes, it is a nice concentration of classic sound from the jalis of West Africa and those who have become superstars beyond their villages. So get your jalis here.

(Rough Guide RGNET 1109CD)

Before I could distinguish Senegalese music from anything else I had a tape with a song called "Jalo" by Etoile de Dakar that slayed me. It wasn't long till I was hooked on the mbalax sound of Youssou Ndour and his band. I even met him and interviewed him on his first tour of the USA (in 1985 or 6), and found him to be modest as well as extremely talented. I am happy to see a compilation of his early work that, though it duplicates stuff I already have, is welcome because it doesn't attempt to do a BEST OF with Peter Gabriel and Sting mucking things up. THE ROUGH GUIDE TO YOUSSOU NDOUR & ETOILE DE DAKAR is subtitled "The rise of Senegal's brightest star" and draws from the four-volume set released on Stern's that you doubtless have (featuring that pirogue on the cover with the date Photo-shopped into the image of his name on the prow). But prowess is what he has in spades, to garble a coinage. The sound quality is not optimum on these tracks but the music more than makes up for it. As the tama drum drives the dancers doing the ventilateur, the lead guitar snakes up and down some Islamic scales and the warbly horns go off into their own call to prayer. The band had a relatively short life (with Youssou fronting) before the egos of the other vocalists, Mar Seck and El Hadji Faye, caused it to split in two. Youssou kept the name adding Super Etoile to it, while the others went for Star Band No 1, claiming to be the originators (the band had actually been formed in 1960 when Youssou was one year old). The redoubtable Graeme Ewens did the compilation and wrote the liner notes.

Youssou Ndour & Etoile de Dakar in concert (Click image for larger view)

GUEW (Africando SYLAF 96070)

Souleymane Faye's album GUEW reminded me at first of Cheikh Lô's stellar outing BAMBAY GUUEJ. But that's good, right? He starts out like an American R&B or soul singer doing the "quiet storm," but it's not long till the mbalax-to-the-wall takes center stage. Lamine Faye of Lemzo Diamono on guitar also does the arrangements which have punchy brass and rock chord progressions. But those arrangements leave room for Faye's voice which has great feeling and the tama (talking drum). I haven't been impressed by the Lemzo Diamono material on compilations like STREETS OF DAKAR or SENEGAL COMPIL so it must be the presence of Faye that brings out their talents. You still have to put up with the synthesized flute solo and some other predictable pop elements, but the dynamics are varied and the singing and harmonies are strong.

Faye is the former singer of the Senegalese jazz fusion group Xalam and is considered the bad boy of Senegalese music. Raised on the street, he has walked away from success several times, blown recording contracts and quit bands, worked at Club Med and languished in Italian jails, but here he delivers what his fans knew he was capable of in a wide variety of styles with a lot of passion. At the end of the album we get a classic 12-bar rock raver, "Abdou Gueye," a bitter tale about an unemployed friend of the singer. No apologies for this: you can substitute Ray Charles or Sex Pistols lyrics and sing along, but there is a great bridge that twists up a key to show Lemzo Diamono have a few tricks up their djelaba sleeves.

NO 2 DE NO 1 (Dakar Sound DKS019)

From Dakar Sound comes another installment in the saga of the Star Bands. After a late night fight with the owner of the Miami nightclub in Dakar in January 1976, half the band moved to another club and created a musicians' cooperative whereby they all got equal pay. These 15 musicians, named Starband Number One, were the hottest thing going and it was some time before the remainder of the band, fronted by Youssou Ndour, came to rival and then surpass them, as Etoile de Dakar. Two of the five vocalists of Number One were heavily into salsa at the time. Years later one of them, Pape Seck, enjoyed the accolades of the world fronting Africando as a salsero in his final years. But back in the day, like they say, there was still the smoky guitar styling of Yakhya Fall to contend with and, with Mamane Fall on tama or talking drum, it was clear that mbalax was the wave of the future rather than Senegalese salsa. There's a three-man horn section (the trumpeter is the weakest member of the ensemble) and a good bass and rhythm guitar adding momentum to Yakhya's far-out trips.

The tracks are drawn from their third through seventh album releases. (one of the best tracks , #7, listed as "Ngomar," is actually "Lii Lumuy Nuru.")

On Mar Seck's "Mory," the guitarist stomps his echo pedals and works out, feeding back and landing the Roland Space Echo (one of my favourite toys), and trying out all the effects at once, over a haunting sustained 4-bar repeated groove punctuated by the tama.

SOPENTÉ (Popular African Music pam oa 206)

Among the essential recordings of African music, the series published by Günter Gretz as Popular African Music rank high, and on top of that stack rides SOPENTÉ by Le Super Cayor de Dakar. Basically a Cuban-inspired band singing in Wolof, they take Guillermo Portabales' "El Caballo vamos pa' monte" to new heights on the title cut. The hard swinging salsa-ish cuts from this album have all been anthologized, attesting to their success, but here you get them in the context of some of their Senegalese neighbours. Instead of a rediscovered oldies band, Super Cayor are still keeping the beat alive in Dakar, despite the immense popularity of mbalax and hip-hop there today. They sound like Baobab and Balladins, of course, but have a real groove that is uniquely theirs. In fact theirs is a hybrid of mbalax and salsa, and the restored popularity of the Baobab sound has meant that in the last 7 years more and more bands are reinvigorating the salsa sound that was at the foundation of modern Senegalese pop.

EMBOUTEILLAGE (Popular African Music pam oa 210)

In 1997 Steve Fagin made a film about Cuba called TROPICOLA. He couldn't get permission to use Arsenio Rodriguez playing "Somewhere over the Rainbow" as the theme song under the title credits (while a couple drove in a convertible along the malécon in Havana), but the music in his film was choice. He turned me on to a lot of classic Cuban music and in return I cued him in to some great African oldies. I suggested to him we go to West Africa together and make a movie about tracking down Balla et ses Balladins. For a fleeting moment I saw myself as a latter-day Hugh Tracey on an insane quest to reunite a legendary band with Steve getting the whole thing on film in his inimitable way. It was a great fantasy, but melted with the ice cubes in the scotch. Since then some of the old-time West African bands have actually resurfaced are now reaping the benefits of late recognition in the West for their superb canon of works. And leave it to Günter Gretz (who was instrumental in the rediscovery of Baobab), to promote more of the classic Senegalese bands and to record them for his exemplary Popular African Music label from Frankfurt. Gretz, in fact, is the latter-day Hugh Tracey I dreamed of becoming.

While Gretz was pushing his dead van out of the Sahara desert in 1994 he heard SUPER CAYOR DE DAKAR, last examplar of the old-style bands that combined salsa with Senegalese mbalax by switching the timbales for African talking drums. Although Africando was taking the West by storm, the period was not favourable to salsa bands in Senegal. Baobab in fact broke up in the early nineties. But Super Cayor, formed of old band-mates from Star Band, M'bol Cissé and James Gadiaga, scored hits with "Capitale-Region" and "Xamsa Bopp." They toured Europe in 1999 but didn't really catch fire so returned to their weeknight club gigs in Dakar. Gradually their salsa songs became club favourites in the West, cropping up on Candela's SALSA AFRICA compilation and also Earthworks' AFRICAN SALSA (which leaned heavily on the SOPENTÉ album released by Gretz in 1997, including half of it!). Then two years ago Baobab's former leader and saxman supreme, Issa Cissokho, joined Super Cayor.

Gretz points out that the pure mbalax diet wore thin on the local crowd hence the return of salsa, but the salsa you hear in Dakar is truly a local sound, not just rehashed Cuban music. Other influences come to bear on the music of course, as we critics are fond of pointing out when we detect a Jack Bruce bass line or a Hank B. Marvin guitar riff. The latest CD from Super Cayor is titled EMBOUTEILLAGE, which means traffic jam. It does have remakes of several familiar Super Cayor songs but it is still great, and now that Issa Cissokho is on the album it will be required listening for Baobab fans too. The album opens and closes with "Degoo" (heard before on SOPENTÉ), the latter being a faster live version complete with a tres-like trill in the opening guitar part and a touch of feedback (it was recorded by Gretz in a tiny snack bar). It's based on Guillermo Portabales "El caballo vamos pa' monte," but has a unique Senegalese feel to it. The title cut is a remake of "Capitale-Region" with new lyrics and heartfelt sax blowing by Issa. The song now deals in couched terms with the political situation in Senegal, the traffic jam being a metaphor for the deadlock in government, housing crisis, etc. The most Wolof-sounding track was recorded live in Brussels at a festival in 1999 and features Moustique on lead vocals, Sylvain Ndiaye on lead guitar and two other percussionists (Sylvain, the regular guitarist, had broken his arm so was not on the other tracks). Fans of Super Cayor will snap this up. Anyone interested in Baobab, classic Etoile de Dakar, or African music in general will find this a rare treat.