Air and Fire

In the panoply of African music, special honours must go to the west-coast/Sahel countries, chiefly francophone, which have given us their distinctive version of the African sound and such greats as Salif Keita, Mory Kante and Toure Kunda.

The legacy of the griots, the hereditary caste of musicians, runs through the region, from Mali to Senegal, Gambia to Guinea-Bissau. While not all the famous musicians are of the griot class, they have drawn on that repository of traditional sounds to create, in dialogue with Western idioms, new forms in African popular music.

Senegal boasts a whole ”family of stars”, with bands like Toure Kunda and Xalam leading the 1970s-1980s wave. The trio presently bringing honour to Senegal is composed of Youssou N’Dour, Ismaël Lo and Baaba Maal.

N’Dour is the most famous, having updated mbalax — based on the interplay of the sabar, buguarabu and tama (talking) drums — of his native land to create a melliflously funky sound, generating several hit albums in the process.

Ismaël Lo, who tours South Africa this week as part of his African ”Reconnection” tour, draws on the same tradition, but is perhaps less rooted in straightforward mbalax. His use of acoustic guitar and harmonica earned him the nickname ”Senegal’s Bob Dylan”, and there is a hint of folkiness under the technological sheen of his newest album, Iso (Polygram).

For the most part, the songs on Iso (which was Lo’s childhood nickname) are laid-back and silkily produced. Lo does, however, funk it up for Setsinala and for Sénégambie, a protest song of sorts — he decries the colonial legacy that artificially separates Senegal from Gambia.

Other topics include meditations on marriage customs, a tribute to the singer’s mother and comments on the ”baol-baol” (hastily urbanised young men from the Baol region).

Like N’Dour, Lo sings largely in Wolof, though the ballad La Femme Sans Haine is in French, and sounds like it should be high on the French charts. The whole is decorated with the talking drums of El Hadj Faye (who played with N’Dour’s band, Super Etoile de Dakar), Ass Malick Diouf’s electric guitar and some fine Latinate brass.

Even better is Baaba Maal’s latest album, Firin’ in Fouta (Polygram). If Lo is airy, Maal is fiery. Unlike N’Dour and Lo, he is not Wolof-speaking, but comes from the Tukulor minority in the Fouta region of northern Senegal. As his CD’s title indicates, he proudly represents that culture as a counter to Wolof hegemony. He sings of African heroes, social problems, the devaluation of the African franc, and pays tribute to African women — including his mother.

He also uses the sound based on the tama and other drums, though this variation is apparently not mbalax but yella, which apparently takes its beat from the pounding of women’s pestles.

And pound it does — Firin’ in Fouta is predominantly up-beat, with an Afro-Caribbean flavour, though Gorel and Salimoun are almost hip-hop in mode. Beside the drums and the traditional kora (an upright calabash-lute), Maal places the whole range of Western instrumentation, from synthesisers to strings.

The overall effect is still down-to-earth, notably less ethereal than Lo. And Maal still has an echo of the muezzin in his voice, while Lo is more of a Motown-style crooner. Both, however, have fused African with Western idioms to make extremely attractive records, and Lo should be well worth hearing when he plays here.

Ismaël Lo plays at Mega Music in Johannesburg on September 29 and 30; at the Old Mutual Auditorium in Pretoria on October 1; at the Bat Centre in Durban on October 4; and at the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, on October 6 and 7

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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