Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour set the Barbican alight with pure positivity and a tight, compelling set of modern Mbalax
One of the most exciting and explosive live sets I experienced in the mid-eighties was Youssou N’Dour and the Super Etoile De Dakar at the short lived Venue in central London. Youssou was around 26 at that time and the mind blowing music they played was called mbalax – a music with sacred origins. His voice was astonishing and his well drilled band was underpinned by the rhymically complex exchanges between the tama / talking drum of Assane Thiam and the staccato crack of the sabar drums. Youssou was in the process of establishing himself globally as the voice of young Senegal.
Though Youssou has been signed to major record companies like Virgin, CBS and Sony his musical output has been largely self released and available via indie imprints like Jololi or Safrom making much of it unknown outside of Senegal. Both singer and activist, in 2007 Youssou hosted the award winning film Return To Gorée and in 2012 he was briefly elected Senegal’s Minister for Tourism.
Fast forward to November 2022 and Youssou is 62 years old,. He’s looking good and remains the premier voice of a thriving wolof speaking Senegambian diaspora. Upon hearing that Youssou was booked to play the Barbican my posse of long time fans were excited. While the world was still in the throes of the COVID epidemic Youssou released the excellent ‘Mbalax’ album on CD and that’s what I was expecting him to play at the Barbican along with a few time tested classics. I was praying for a session that would… just for a couple of hours… blow away the racist, xenophobic vibes that continue to haunt this currently wretched island.
The audience at the Barbican was treated to a journey through time. Youssou dipped into a host of musical moments from his prolific recording career There were no songs from the ‘Mbalax’ abum but we were not to be disappointed. It was a full house and the sense of anticipation was high. The Senegambian community was out in full force – dressed to impress and in fine voice when it came to joining in on a repertoire that they were well familiar with.
The show kicked off with classic ‘Xaley Rewmi’ from the ‘Inedits’ album released back in ’85. The response was huge and Youssou followed it with ‘Serigne Fallou’ – a deep song with ill bass lines and delicate guitar over shuffling percussion. It’s a song that is dedicated to Serigne Mouhamadou Fallou Mbacké, the son of Sufi saint and religious leader Sheikh Amadou Bamba and the second Caliph of the Mouride brotherhood – a sect which Youssou follows.
Youssou looked relaxed and comfortable in front of his well crafted ensemble which totalled 12 musicians, two singers and a killer mbalax dancer, Moussa Sonko. The reflective ‘Lima Wessu’, which was lifted the ‘Nothing Is In Vain’ album, had the singer reflecting on growing older while the rapid fire medley of ‘Climat’, Walo’ and Niarr Fi Neh’ had the crowd phones in hand, on their feet and dancing. The timeless ‘Immigres’ followed and it was wonderful to see a black clad, hijab wearing sister in aisle, hands in the air and dancing.
With each tune the musicians would drift on and off the stage, shifting the musical vibe but ever present were drummer Abdoulaye Lo, basssist Thierno Sarr, percussionists Babacar Faye and El Hadji Omar Faye and tama /talking drum master Assane Thiam. Special props have to go Assane Thiam who delivered one magical solo.
Youssou dipped into albums known and not so well known – ‘History’, ‘Respect’, and ‘Afrika Rekk’ (which I feel means Africa is here… alive!). There were a few minor concessions to the non Wolof speaking fans. Yousou’ duet with Neneh Cherry on ‘7 Seconds’ had a massive global impact and on this night Neneh was deftly replaced by soulful Cameroonian singer Pascale Kameni Kamga. But hey, who’s gonna knock tunes like ‘No More’ or ‘Happy’ or the conscious and celebratory ‘New Africa ‘ which featured in the movie I Bring What I Love.
While not beating the sabar Babacar Faye did an excellent job as MC, guiding the audience participation… arms in the air… to the left to the right… on the beat… one two three… and the crowd loved it. Naturally, a dancer from the audience was invited onstage to test their mbalax dance skills and when a blond white girl whipped up storm of high steppin’ mbalax moves fully in sync with the drummers the initially stunned crowd went wild. The vibe in hall was one of positivity, togetherness… borders were broken… you don’t have to speak wolof to feel the spiritual positivity embodied in Youssou’s soaring vocals. His voice echoes centuries of praise singing while he embodies and projects his own well defined vision of modern Africa – it’s elegant, musically sophisticated, political and profanity free. Youssou is focussed on giving his audience a good time and the vibe in Barbican proved that.
The music that Super Etoile delivered came in percussive, rhythmic waves ensuring that most people were on their feet and moving… people filmed themselves, documenting the moment for future reference. The penultimate tune of the set was ‘Yaakar’ which translates as hope and sends out a clear message and our Senegalese host chose to finish the night with a deep homage to Oumar Foutiyou Tall a 19 century West African political leader, Toucouleur military commander. Islamic scholar and Tijani Sufi. It left us all on a devotional high.
As we filed out of hall, the people were wreathed in smiles. We had experienced something special, something that COVID had kept locked down for too long. Also let’s keep it real and celebrate the moment ’cause this Tory government is not gonna make it easy for any African musican to freely tour the UK now or in the future. Basically, we can give thanks that the Barbican pulled it off this post Black History month spectacular. As I write this I’ve digging back into Youssou N’Dour’s archive, dipping in on those Grand Bal concerts, listening to cassettes and tracking down LPs which had slipped beneath my radar. Right now, as I listen to ‘Bukki Yi’ – another highlight of the night – I can only pray that a new generation of young music lovers and dancers might just discover the stratospheric rhythms of Senegal and the phenomenon that is mbalax.
PB / #StraightNoChaser / https://straightnochaser.bigcartel.com/