Robert Christgau on a Senegalese Icon's Undiminished Greatness
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews two albums from Youssou N'Dour and one each from Tal National, Les Filles de Illighadad, Songhoy Blues, and Amadou & Mariam.
Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Youssou N'Dour: Raxas Bercy 2017 (self-released) N'Dour having uploaded all the songs from this live Paris concert to YouTube, none with video and most preceded by ads, I have my physical from a friend who took the trouble—in a maneuver well beyond my own know-how—to download them and burn them sans ads onto a CD-R that runs over an hour. Sequence: "El Fénomeno"-"Djino"-"Mbeguël Is All"-"Djamil"-"New Africa"-"Africa Remembers"-"Sama Gamou"-"Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng Mbacké"-"Bul Nangu." Earlier versions of four of these songs are already in my N'Dour iTunes collection, with "Djino" dating all the way back to the strange 1998 Best of '80s. The recent "Mbeguël Is All" is diminished here by a dexterously pro forma guitar intro; "Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng Mbacké" and "Djami" are intensified by female vocals from I don't know who. N'Dour is in undiminished voice as sabar drums clatter everywhere, although after all these years that voice finally has some grit to it—among other things, of course. The nearest thing in my collection is the bootleg (?) Le Grand Bal Bercy 2001 Vol. 2. This is more songful, yet so intense I've played it more than any recent N'Dour except Senegaal Rekk. Happy hunting, reconfiguring, whatever. A MINUS
Tal National: Tantabara (Fat Cat) It was a good idea to juice the title opener with some talking drum, a "kazagué" (?) I can't pick out of the hectic mix, and—especially—mouthy Zara Moussa, a Nigerien who has long rapped under the handle ZM although here she only sings. Another good idea was the lead solo one of three named guitarists takes on the so-called "Entente"—really, this uncompromising thing is an entente? Unrelentingness having been the specialty of this shifting cast of male Nigeriens for three CDs now—14 are credited, including six singers and four drummers—both effects render them somewhat more accommodating while remaining dead set on directing your attention to nonstop rhythm music. If Youssou seems too calm and unflappable even live these days, try this. It will not let you be. A MINUS
Youssou N'Dour: Seeni Valeurs (Jive/Epic) Although I doubt a physical would add much context, this download-only album proves that the Dakar tycoon and sometime pol still knows music is his bedrock—without conveying anything specific outsiders can make out, true, but when the music is N'Dour's, that's usually enough. Six new songs, eight tracks, kicked off by the atypical ululations that announce the atypically relaxed title opener and highlighted by three versions of the apparently Senegal-centric "Mbeguël Is All" unimpeded by the superfluous guitar intro of the live one, as well as two very similar mixes featuring kora master Toumani Diabate. For Wolof speakers, this album may function as a major statement. For me the major statement is that this great musician and fairly great man is unlikely to go away soon. B PLUS
Les Filles de Illighadad: Eghass Malan (Sahelsounds) Nigerien sisters soften Saharan intensity with an innocence that's sweetly girl-group, although admittedly less catchy ("Eghass Malan," "Tihilele") ***
Songhoy Blues: Resistance (Fat Possum) "Voter" skanks, then "Bamako" funks, then Iggy fronts "Sahara," and without ever quite nailing the Malian-American fusion Garba Toure's guitar just knows is there, they get closer and closer ("Dabari," "Bamako") **
Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion (Because) This is who they are, and it remains a heroic story, but extra synth wash cannot disguise what an awkward time it is to put a Malian stamp on feel-good dance-pop ("Bofou Safou, "La Confusion") *
Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.