Formed from members of two of Dakar, Senegal’s most popular nightclub bands, Étoile de Dakar – fronted by vocalist Youssou N’Dour – took the city by storm, soon becoming the most popular band in all of Senegal and revitalizing its music industry, and quickly one of the most popular in all of Africa. They lasted for three years and only a few albums before conflicts within the group made it splinter into several offshoots and Youssou N’Dour catapulted to fame on an international stage. They took the Latin-tinged music popular in West Africa and imbued it with Senegalese roots, creating a music called mbalax, a term coined by Youssou from the Wolof word for “rhythm,” and rhythm is what it’s all about, creating a fast, ferocious groove that shifts regularly and willfully throughout the songs, making them sometimes hard to grasp on one shot, but riveting and rewarding for multiple listens.
And this collection, selected by Graeme Ewens, author of several excellent books on African music, is as good a way to introduce yourself to the band as any that exists. Or at least, it’s a good way to introduce yourself to Youssou N’Dour’s vision of the band, since all the songs are written by N’Dour and two of them are from his post-Étoile group Super Étoile de Dakar. The record kicks off with one of the group’s finest moments, “Absa Gueye” which introduces you right off the bat to the most important things in the band: the song starts with a guitar rhythm after which the bass comes in to lock in with it, followed by a second guitar augmenting the swift rhythms. Then come the drums, a deeper sabar drum and one of the band’s most notable features, the tama drum, pounding sometimes in tandem with the rest of the group, sometimes making a staccato solo statement on top of them. These are all followed by the ace horn section bleating out a hooky riff. And then the voices come in. You’ll notice Youssou’s tenor right away – he’s in the right channel – because he’s got the strongest voice, but you can’t miss El Hadji Faye’s high wail in the other speaker or Eric M'Backe Doye packed in the middle. Again, they sometimes sing together, sometimes comment on each other’s words, sometimes tail off into different harmonies at the same time. But “Absa Gueye” ends in relatively short order and leads to “Jalo,” the mellowest thing here, and also a good way to experience the voices with the least clutter going on around them. For this group, this is a relatively mellow beginning, and the third track, the 12-minute “Thiapatholy,” starts slower before suddenly erupting into high gear and we’re off to the races.
Maybe instead of easing into the waters, you should dive right into the deep end with “Thiapathioly,” a masterpiece of mbalax that can seem forbidding at first, but tells you about everything that their music is in one, shifting, ever-accelerating piece. It starts out slower, but then at the 0:50 mark the horns blow out a riff and the rhythm takes off at a gallop. Lead guitarist Badou N'Diaye kicks out a solo for about a minute after that (unfortunately it’s a little low in the mix). At about 3:15 the horns play the riff that will repeat the most in the song while the tama drum beats out an insistent pattern with them and then its own pulse in the moments between riffs. Shortly after, the vocals join in the fray as well, singing together, declaiming individually, trading off phrases, but all feeling the rhythm. At 5:53 a new horn riff and rhythm set up for a moment then at 6:09 the rhythm shifts again to something even faster. A little shy of the 7-minute mark there’s another new horn riff, then quickly a faster reappearance of the old riff from earlier in the song and the tama and sabar drums step up to the speed we’re at now. Vocals drop out for a moment while the horns, guitars and bass riff and the percussion takes a lead for a while. Youssou returns at 9:00 and at this point everyone in the band is going nuts. At 10:35ish, the rhythm shifts again to a trickier pattern, slows down a touch to a more swinging groove at 10:55 and rides that to the vocal finale of the song, just shy of 12 minutes. It’s an epic song in the true sense, and runs you through the finest that mbalax has to offer.
Other songs throughout highlight their guitars (“Diokhama Say Ne Ne” especially), their gifted horn section (most of the songs), and their remarkably sure sense of (fast, danceable) rhythm even when the songs get dense and complex. But if the youthful drive of several virtuoso players jockeying for lead space sounds exhausting, maybe try the later cuts like “Youssou” which might be the best place to start if you’re not ready to dive into the deep end with “Thiapathioly.” It’s slightly slower, has fewer changes (and less jarring ones at that), great singing – maybe the vocal high point of the disc here – and another terrific horn riff. And there’s a moment when N’Dour hands the reins to the guitarist when he says “C'est ça” and the guitar rips out one of the best (and most clearly recorded) solos of the entire set. It’s a great one. The collection ends with two cuts from N’Dour’s Super Étoile de Dakar, who he took to Europe with him to tour and begin a new phase of his career. These two are directly in the spirit of the Étoile de Dakar that we’ve just heard – which makes sense since N’Dour wrote and sang lead on every cut here.
By 1981, they’d had enough of each other, with El Hadji Faye, Eric M'Backe Doye, and Badou N'Diaye splitting to form Étoile 2000, who made one worthy (and hard to find – snap it up if you see it) album before splitting up yet again, and Youssou, tama drummer Assane Thiam, percussionist Babacar Faye, and animateur Alla Seck (the rough equivalent to a hype man – think Flavor Flav), forming Super Étoile de Dakar and conquering Europe. Since the regular albums (all worthwhile) are long out of print, this may be your best - and is certainly the most economical - route to find out about one of the most exciting bands on the planet. You could grab the more balanced two-disc collection Once Upon A Time in Senegal, which more thoroughly goes through their catalog, featuring the many other songwriters who did work for the group and overlapping with only five of the cuts here. Or get them both. You won’t be sorry.
- Patrick Brown