PAM is pleased to present a new episode from the Paris c’est L’Afrique series (dir. Philippe Conrath, 1989) on our YouTube channel. Youssou N’Dour, Xalam, Touré Kunda, Doudou N’Diaye Rose, Omar Pène… from Dakar to Paris, they are all here to tell the story of the many ways of mbalax.
With episode 1 dedicated to “The Pioneers” – the artists who contributed to creating visibility and to providing the initial exposure of African music in France –, episode 2 focuses on the Senegalese scene, at a time when the “mbalax” (or “mbalakh”) genre was exploding. A country that has just “celebrated”, yet also confined, its 60th anniversary, Senegal continued to keep close ties with France since it gained independence, particularly through its Paris-based diaspora*. The outbreak of African music in France in the 1980s owes a lot to the bridge between the countries of the former French colonial regime and its diaspora. The formation of the Syllart label at the beginning of the decade by Ibrahima Sylla is one of the most obvious examples. In time, the newly-gained visibility of these artists would do a lot for the recognition of African communities in France.
That’s exactly what Ismaël Touré speaks about in this film. He is one of the brothers in Touré Kunda, a band that formed in Paris in the late 1970s, and that made an impressionable entrance onto the French scene in the early 1980s. “Our breakthrough,” he explains, “has enabled recognition of Black culture and Black existence to this country. An acknowledgment of the identity of those people who used to hide in the shadows and all of a sudden were able to stand up tall.” Touré Kunda is one of the pillars of the great story which saw African music break through in the West, but also a link in the chain for Senegalese music.
From Doudou N’Diaye Rose to Touré Kunda, via Xalam
Notably, this episode is dedicated to the many ways of mbalax. The name of this specific rhythm lent its name to the genre that gradually developed throughout the 1970s when Senegalese orchestras, accustomed to playing a lot of Afro-Cuban music – began to introduce percussion and typical Senegalese rhythms. Mbalax was just one of them, but that’s the name that has remained in place to label the fusion sound that came to modernize the traditional. A far-reaching genre which boasts a number of sonic architects. And this episode presents some of its most distinguished. Starting with the visionary rhythm doctor Doudou N’Diaye Rose (1930-2015), who showcases – with drumsticks in hand – the various traditional rhythms of mbalax, demonstrated on a set up made of various drums. The members of Xalam 2, founded in 1969 by a group of friends would also experiment with all types of fusions, blending the rhythms of different Senegalese regions with jazz and funk.
The band’s pianist Henri Guillabert, recalls that in Senegal, “we wanted to play traditional Senegalese music with modern instruments, but the first time we did it in a club, the promoter asked us to stop. We were the first to play mbalax, but what they wanted back then was salsa, rock, and funk.” Settling down in a home with a small patch of grass, Xalam members created a little Africa in the Parisian suburbs where meats sizzle on the barbecue whilst Jean-Philippe Rykiel plays the keys on a sunny afternoon.
And from Youssou N’Dour to Omar Pène
Naturally, the film features Youssou N’Dour, at that stage already the king of modern mbalax. We first join him in Abidjan in 1988, taking part in a big concert organized by Amnesty International, alongside a bunch of British and North American stars. On stage with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen, he sings Bob Marley’s anthem “Get Up, Stand Up” in front of a packed crowd gathered in the Félix Houphouët-Boigny stadium, who sing along in unison. Then we meet Youssou again, this time in the studio, explaining how, like others, he felt intimidated initially by all the technical equipment that Western musicians used to produce. However, this is exactly what he came in search of. Philippe Conrath, author and director of the film, remembers that at the time Youssou “was writing down the position of each setting on the console, to better understand the studio routine – he was learning at the same time”. Furthermore, the internationally recognised artist explains clearly in the film: he prefers living in Dakar, the land of his inspiration and the homeplace of his parents, who are also interviewed in the documentary.
As for Omar Pène, he too came to France to record at the same time, where both his producer and his touring agent resided. After being interviewed in Paris, we then meet him again in Dakar at the Thiossane, the club where his band Super Diamono was extremely popular. Here, you are invited to attend their rehearsal, and to appreciate their very beautiful version of “Nkrumah”, a tribute to fervent Pan-Africanist and Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, but also to Sankara and Mandela, other figures who, like him, contributed to the liberation of Africa.
Much like the previous episode, the second part of the series is not just a snapshot of a scene at the end of the ’80s. It shows the evolution of African music – which in thirty years has found its own unique signature between influences from abroad and traditional heritage – allowing room for reflection on North-South relations which, thirty years on, remain just as relevant.
* We spare a thought for the late Youssou Diop, a longtime taxi driver from Senegal living in Paris and discerning music lover, who first introduced the author of these words to the music of Youssou N’Dour and Omar Pène.