September 5, 2010
Aby Ngana Diop's truly awesome mbalax cassette has already been posted at Likembe and, more recently, Awesome Tapes from Africa, but it's far too mind-blowing not to propagate further. Mblalax (literally "accompaniment" in Wolof) is a modern dance genre very popular in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, where it has dominated the radio waves since the 80s. Aby Ngana Diop, from Dakar, was the first taasukat (singer) to record an album of modern mbalax music. The mixture of styles creates an intense listening experience: Diop's modulated voice reminds me, at times, of the lady from Poltergeist, shouting moral instruction to the youth behind the veil. Musique concrète horses, trains and sweeping brooms are overwhelmed by insanely complicated sabar drum rhythms, which sound like they may fall apart any moment. The whistling synth loops offer an other-worldly parallel to trance music coming out of the West at the time. Liital was a huge hit in Senegal, and musicians like Diop's nephew, Cheikh Lô, continue to create popular variations of its songs. The extreme popularity of the mbalax genre is unique to the region. Since at least the 90s, it has been a staple at baptisms and weddings, and its fanbase transcends social barriers like age or class. Aby Ngana Diop died in 1997. This cassette is her only known recording, though one can hope there are wedding videos and live recordings out there somewhere.
Originally, mbalax referred to a specific accompanying rhythm in a sabar drum ensemble. Sabar was incorporated into the popular Afro-Cuban sound after Senegal's independence from French colonial rule in 1960. Use of sabar, along with singing in native Wolof, were similar to other cultural shifts in Africa's so-called Négritude movement, attemping to reclaim a pre-colonial identity untainted by colonial influence (see Guinea).
Essential ingredients of mbalax include: 1) a taasukat, usually from a griot family background, who sings about moral issues, offering social advice. Taasu, a poetic story-telling form usually performed by women, has been sited as an antecedent to rap music. 2) Sabar drums, the fundamental root of mbalax; the term itself refers to an accompanying Sabar rhythm. Sabar, usually an ensemble of twelve or more drums of different kinds, create incredibly complex rhythm patterns which rely on bukk, or smaller phrases, like a vocabulary that all the drummers are familiar with. 3) The Yamaha DX-7, called marimba in Senegal-- though real marimbas have never been used in Senegal-- refers to a specific marimba sound the Yamaha DX-7 makes and has been the third essential component to mbalax since the 80s.
[For those who like their figgers bigger, the Likembe link has a 192kbps cassette rip. I like the way this 128kbps rip sounds better.]
• Ethnomusicologist Patricia Tang's work was an essential resource for all things mbalax.
• A lot of great mbalax can be found over at freedomblues, including Fatou Guewel Kara's 2002 album and this old burner from the "I Don't Give a Damn" Generation of the 90s.
• Is "Dieuleul-Dieuleul" sampled on NWA's "Express Yourself"? [EDITOR'S NOTE: not unless Dr Dre had a time machine.]