Etoile de Dakar and Youssou N’Dour Once Upon a Time in Senegal – The Birth of Mbalax 1979-81 Review

Released 2010.  

BBC Review

As much Etoile de Dakar as most Youssou fans will ever need.

Jon Lusk 2010

Long before he became a global star in 1994 with 7 Seconds, Youssou N’Dour found great fame in Senegal with this band of young upstarts. The group was largely formed by deserters from Dakar’s premier group, the Star Band. They were disgruntled over the sacking of a colleague by their tyrannical director, so in 1979 they translated the name of his group into French, thus founding Etoile de Dakar.

This two-CD compilation supersedes Sterns’ mid-1990s four-CD series, cherry-picking the best bits from six of the seven (!) cassette albums Etoile de Dakar released in an incredibly productive two years together. The material has also been covered less satisfyingly by a four-CD series on Touba, and more whore-ishly on a single disc release by Rough Guides.

Mark Hudson’s excellent sleeve notes (based on his own interview and one by Katarina Loëbeck) explain the musical milieu of the time, and answer many questions old fans will have asked themselves. The band are now seen as having invented mbalax, the rootsy poly-rhythmic style that would dominate Senegalese music for the next two decades and put the country on the map.

Novice listeners may be surprised Youssou shared lead vocals with two other fine singers – the gruff El Hadji Faye and the mellower Eric M’Backe N’Doye. The production will seem basic as well, but even though they recorded their first (and best) album Absa Gueye in a nightclub, their sheer musicality shines through.

The gently rocking, hypnotic praise song Jola contrasts with slinky Afro-Cuban influenced numbers such as Esta China and Mane Khouma Khol Thi Yan, with the more fevered likes of Thiely and Dom Sou Nare Bahk bringing the percussion section – congas, timbales, maracas and the small ‘tama’ talking drum, but no kit drums – to the fore. There’s also a quaintly quacking brass section (with occasional, distinctly melismatic solos by saxophonist Rane Dallo) and the brilliant guitar of Badou N’Diaye, who adds particularly wiggy effects on his own composition Tolou Badou N’Diaye.

It’s clear from the dwindling number of songs taken from each successive release, and the music itself, that they were running out of ideas by the time tensions within the band tore it apart. Ommissions such as Tu Veras and Defal Gnou Guiss may raise eyebrows, but this is still as much Etoile de Dakar as most Youssou fans will ever need.

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