The work of fiction Mark Hudson’s The Music in My Head most recalls is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, another tale of a record collector defeating his mania on the road to mature love, la dee dah. Only it’s not much like High Fidelity, because plot isn’t the payoff. You want Motown-quality entertainment, Hornby’s your man. You want music from the inside and a mad sprawl of a book that evokes it every which way, go down to Stern’s and buy this award-winning travel writer’s only novel, which hasn’t found an American publisher. Amazon.co.uk has it too, but the Brit branch isn’t selling CDs yet, and this book demands its soundtrack, a Stern’s compilation also called The Music in My Head. As a depiction of Africa—really Dakar, except that Hudson isn’t always circumspect about the distinction—Hudson’s novel is tendentious, impolite, enthralled, and more convincing than most white people’s depictions of Africa. As music writing it’s stone brilliant, and it’s generated the album to prove it.
Hudson’s protagonist, the exaggerated composite Andrew “Litch” Litchfield, is a middle-level biz hustler with a Hunter Thompson swagger to his prose who on a Gambia holiday circa 1980 remakes himself as the herald of “world music,” a term and phenomenon that come to perturb him greatly. His life is changed by the voice of Sajar Jopp, whom readers may recognize as Youssou N’Dour; other key pseudonyms include not just Michael Heaven (Peter Gabriel) and Cherry Jatta Samba (Salif Keita), but N’Galam, Tekrur, which is how Hudson feels constrained to designate Dakar, Senegal. Maybe his lawyers worried that a municipality could sue, and you can see why. On page five, Litch calls N’Galam/Dakar “a place that, while regarding itself as the Athens of Africa, was recently described by the Economist as ‘one of the least secure places in the world,”‘ and scarcely a chapter goes by without his fearing he’ll be set upon by one of those cunning natives who lounge around affably in the heat only to spring into action at night. While it might be argued that Litch is a fictional character flirting with mental breakdown, Hudson is obviously fascinated by the cool, tough Tekrurian/Senegalese vibe that says: “I may be unemployed, I may know nothing, but I am a man—so back off!” The first chapter of his Our Grandmothers’ Drums, set in the calmer confines of a Gambian village, relates how he was almost robbed in the Dakar airport. This overheated vision of an African city may be a grievous insult. After all, what would Hudson make of a place as scary as Lagos or Kinshasa? But it opened up West African music for me.
Regarding “probably the best band in the world,” Sajar Jopp’s, Litch observes: “The trouble with this kind of music, or rather the great thing about it, is that it tends not to stop in one groove for long.” In this it’s totally unlike the “glossy tumbling soukous hedonism” that evolved from “the beautiful, soulful old Congolese rumba,” which after the juju bubble burst was “the great hope for African music. Down there in the mad military kleptocracy in the torrid belly of Africa things were so bad that the only option—for those who could afford it—was to drink, dance and try to forget it.” Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for soukous’s nonstop party. In the right mood I could relate to the solemnities of Keita and N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Ali Farka Toure, but I figured such stuff was made for a major thinker like Peter Gabriel, not little old me. Even if West Africa had stronger singers, wilder drums, and rockinger guitars, as in general it did, each element seemed to go its own way rather than serve the collective good. Yet before I’d even read The Music in My Head, the CD had sensitized me to what I’ll call the Dakar Overgroove.
How to capture this aural gestalt in a phrase when Hudson devotes half a novel to it? Desert mystics conquering the fleshpots? Overloaded camions careening down a potholed road? Frantic macho cohering and clashing, stopping and going, crashing and cohering again? I’d encountered its prototype in two of Hudson’s star exhibits, the early dance music of Keita with Les Ambassadeurs and especially N’Dour with Etoile de Dakar. Yet the cantering guitar-and-drums riff and piercing vocal call-and-response of Etoile de Dakar’s standout 1977 “Thiely” only continues a demonstration begun by Hudson’s lead cut, Number One de Dakar’s 1978 “Non gui, Nongui,” where dramatic horns-and-drums do the hookwork and gruff Pape Seck states the theme. And what’s truly gratifying is that Hudson doesn’t seem stuck in the good old days: exhibit three, Thione Seck’s long, elegiac “Laye M’Boup,” was recorded in 1994, and the synth you can make out in the detailed modern mix belongs there like everything else.
Hudson can defy all proper principles of compilation sequencing and jumble six pre-1980 tracks with six post-1992, ignoring the intervening world-music years, because the Overgroove prevails. He’s onto something that overwhelms cogent chronological transitions: an emergent urban energy that’s always in gear as it runs stop signs and screeches around corners. Admittedly, however, his greatest prizes are audiophile nightmares from 1980: tracks six and seven, Etoile 2000’s literally garage-recorded anti-Youssou smash, “Boubou N’Gary,” all unkempt echoplexed fuzzbox and excitable tama drum, and Gestu de Dakar’s aurally crude and otherwise unknown “Djirime.” Horns blare sourly, drums kibitz, two singers fall in and out, and a fast-thinking guitarist provokes Hudson to wonder whether he’s Joycean or Proustian.
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.