Africa Talks to You

Keita performed these three tunes—"Iniagige," "Ananaming," and "Katolon"—alone onstage to open his October 13 show at Irving Plaza. From there the evening gradually accrued complexity, ending with a steady procession of supplicants willing to dash off handfuls of bills upon the singer's head and shoulders in exchange for a hug, quick dance, or, in the case of one believer, a Pentecostal collapse in a fit of ecstasy. And why not? The music was that transportive. Keita's refined version of Mali griot melodies, sung in his simultaneously imploring and excoriating gritty high tenor, crosses all kinds of borders. A deep calabash alternated rumba, Afrobeat, and Malinke rhythms alongside a djembe and talking drum. Electric guitar, bass, and keyboards gave the music an exuberant dancefloor oomph—though who wouldn't prefer a real balafon marimba to a keyboard patch? Nevertheless, the show delivered the most exciting Afropop I'd heard since the last time Baaba Maal passed through town.

The hook upon which Youssou N'Dour's wonderful Nothing's in Vain hangs comfortably is the singer's liberal use of traditional Senegalese percussion—the kora, the five-stringed xalam lute, the one-string riti violin, etc.—alongside the electrifying musicians who have accompanied him for two decades. It was produced over a year and a half atN'Dour's Senegal studio with longtime bassist and music director Habib Faye. Their music is rich, diverse, virtuosic, and, like Keita's, verges on the orchestral. It is spectacular in a way African music has aspired to be ever since Ibrahim Sylla began producing slick Congolese music with Paris expatriates and sending it home nearly 30 years ago. And it radiates the pop authority N'Dour has long sought, usually through seemingly calculated collaborations with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry.

Nothing's in Vain is structured ingeniously so that five tracks devoted to love and the eternal, African feminine form a core around which more traditionally masculine concerns revolve. Both Keita and N'Dour so insistently declare their recognition of the suffering of woman at the hands of man that you have to wonder what inspired them and, more important, what, if any, difference it makes. N'Dour sings about love in three languages, and even a lyrically thin song like "C'est l'Amour" sounds downright skippy in Wolof. His paeans range from the pointillist and propulsive pop mbalax of the track translated as "Because Love's Like That" (with its casually profound observation that "Love's so complex that you shouldn't be too demanding") to "There Is No Happy Love," a chanson he croons over an accordion and loping Wolof percussion ensemble.

Youssou N'Dour sings about love in three languages.
photo: Jonathan Mannion
Youssou N'Dour sings about love in three languages.

Details

Explorer Series: Africa
Nonesuch

Salif Keita
Moffou
Decca/Universal

Youssou N'Dour
Nothing's in Vain (Coono du Réér)
Nonesuch

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Few albums this good sound so scrupulously crafted, so balanced between local moods and global tastes. "Heat, Breeze, Tenderness," the opener, weaves the riti through poetic lines about nostalgia and the seasons, and, with its unusually honest image of curling up in front of the TV, sounds about as African as a poem in The New Yorker. The sort of soaring mbalax N'Dour is usually noted for doesn't kick in until the third track, "As in a Mirror," as beautiful and joyous a tune as he's ever composed. He makes a personal plea for peace in "For Those Displaced" and returns after his love quintet with "Show Your Mettle," a frolicking, skittering track condemning the abuse of power, which takes off into a tough, upbeat dance.

Nothing's in Vainends with "Africa, Dream Again," which N'Dour performs in Wolof and English with a trio of French ringers. It's an odd goodbye, bland and cliché in its way, but I can't imagine the album without it. N'Dour's and Keita's intelligent optimism couldn't come at a more necessary juncture, either, as the beasts howl here, there, and everywhere. As Keita proclaims joyously amid a small forest of percussion in the last line of "Here," Moffou's final song: "Oh my friend, a new sun rises." Beats waiting for worse.

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