Dakar in Gear

After that the album tones down some; tracks 10 and 11, both recent, seem comparatively slick as they protest unemployment and reprise Mandinka kora traditions, and on the finale, Coumba Gawlo says amen with a gorgeous not-quite-pop ballad that sets all this male turmoil aright with some female principle. This selection is the ultimate proof of Hudson's ears; Gawlo's album has other good songs on it, but "Miniyamba" is superb in a modern mode the proud discoverer of Gestu de Dakar probably doesn't have much use for. Yet though I resist the aesthetic of raw and luxuriate in what Paris did to soukous, I have to admit that the older, cruder stuff—busy, contentious, fit to bust—defines the Dakar Overgroove.

Is it powered by "those whose voices testify to the most unspeakable levels of dissipation and abuse, to the closest identification with the age-old agonies of their race," as Litch puts it? Except conceivably for the wasting effects of diet, I detect no dissipation here. But "people who have nothing to live for but music"? That's what the Etoile 2000 album put together by the Dutch CNR label in 1996 sounds like. "Boubou N'Gary" was such a big hit for the disaffected Youssou bandmates the garage's owner was bankrolling—including intense tenor El Hadji Faye, rock-besotted guitar man Badou N'Diaye, and Yamar Thiam, who couldn't stop sticking in his tamas if you paid him—that it generated a mercurial career. Springing into action at night, they were clearly one of the great crazy bands.

But soon they were gone, and Hudson's skill in proving that their spirit lives on is largely sleight of hand. The albums where he found the Thione Seck and Omar Pene songs aren't as lustrous as Coumba Gawlo's, but since Gawlo has no second thoughts about pop, they're also more compromised; two other '90s tracks are folkloric reclamations. So the protector of today's Dakar Overgroove turns out to be none other than Youssou N'Dour. Tell me 1994's The Guide (Wommat) is, as Litch would have it, "fucking boring," and all I'll respond is that 1990's Set really isn't. But N'Dour continues to record for his Senegalese base, and while the rawness of Etoile de Dakar is missed, the drums are a lot noisier than world-folkies like them. The most impressive recent N'Dour I've heard, including the just-released Spécial Fin d'Année, is 1996's Lii! Its seven songs begin more decorously, more confidently, perhaps because they're sure they have tunes. But soon N'Dour and his three drummers are driving them past their own choruses and over the top. The Overgroove has changed for sure—matured, la dee dah. But it still sounds like something worth living for.

N'Dour's African releases are available from Africassette, Box 24941, Detroit, MI 48224. Stern's is located at 71 Warren Street, NYC 10007.

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