With the release of “Mbalax”, the new album by Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, another great title is added to a series of releases in 2021, which will make this year a particularly good year for world music. There were already very nice releases from compatriot Omar Pene, from Vadou Game and the UK-based Balimaya Project. Now Youssou N’Dour returns to the international scene with his new album “Mbalax”.
“Mbalax” as the title immediately suggests that N’Dour returns to his roots on this album, the unadulterated Senegalese mbalax. Mbalax is the most popular dance music in Senegal, having its ancient roots in the sacred ndut ceremonies of the Serere from the region of Thies and the conservative njuup traditions of the Serere from the Sine-Saloum region. Having said that, it must be said that in the contemporary Senegalese music scene, mbalax is still, now together with Galsen hop, Senegalese hip hop, the most predominant style of music that you really hear everywhere and always. As an ambassador of the mbalax, Youssou N’Dour is largely responsible for this immense popularity of the genre.
The album contains 12 titles and clocks in at almost 55 minutes. The production was in the hands of Bouba N’Dour, indeed Youssou’s brother. Bouba is a celebrated producer in the field of mbalax, having previously collaborated with Senegalese stars such as Titi, Aida Samb, Viviane Chidid, Ami Collé Dieng and Pape Diouf. The brothers work well together. The album sounds like a clock and gives enough space in terms of sound spectrum for the often very complicated polyrhythms that characterize the mbalax. Yet it remains a huge loss that Habib Faye is no longer with us. Faye, the musical arranger, composer, bassist and producer of N’Dour passed away much too early in 2018, making this the second album in which the unmistakable jazz influences in the arrangements are still sorely missed.
The 12 tracks evoke different themes ranging from environmental issues, such as “Ndox” meaning “water” which is about environmental issues. On “Gaggantiko”, N’Dour sings about the problems and challenges from married life.
One track is even stronger than the other. His band plays, as always, extremely tight, and with playful ease the most complex musical structures and rhythmic breaks for which the mbalax is so known. The band is constantly renewing itself with new blood from musicians who have gone through the hard school of playing in the nightclub Thiossane. Longtime faithful Mbaye Diey Faye on percussion and Assane Thiam on tama have been loyal to N’Dour for decades and once again play the stars of heaven on this album.
A poignant moment on the album is when N’Dour pays tribute to the Senegalese singer Thione Seck, who died earlier this year on March 14, with “Ballago Ndumbe Yaatma”. A beautiful choir and a heart-wrenching guitar will make even those of us not fluent in Wolof as a language feel that N’Dour has nothing but respect for Thione Seck’s legacy. A beautiful moment.
With “Mbalax” Youssou N’Dour makes a strong return to the international stage. Whether the infectious mbalax will also catch on with the international public remains to be seen. N’Dour makes no concessions on this album. With “Mbalax”, N’Dour claims the leading role for Senegalese music on the world stage. (8/10) (Universal Music Africa)
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