Moutarou ‘Daby’ Balde hails from the tropical southern Casamance region of Senegal although he is now based in the country’s capital, Dakar. Here he runs a club, Le Marigot, which takes its name from a river in his native city of Kolda. One of Balde’s purposes in opening the venue was to preserve the Fula traditions of the South. Fula — a name referring to both a language and a people — was also a point of reference for Malian ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate’s 2009 album, I Speak Fula, though Kouyate’s work and Balde’s represent quite distinct musical traditions and ambitions. Balde’s music is representative of the Casamance region as much as of any particular linguistic culture, a fact underlined by his performance of Mandinka pieces in addition to Fula. While the Mandinka people are widely spread across West Africa, those in Senegal have been particularly associated with the Casamance, home to numerous notable musicians.
Furthermore, there is a definite sense of the rural in much of Balde’s work, in contrast to, say, the urban rhythms of Senegal’s most famous delegate of the world music network, Youssou N’Dour. And while Balde’s arrangements are exploratory and varied — as evidenced on his wonderful debut album Introducing Daby Balde — there is far less of the cosmopolitan internationalism found in the mbalax hybrids of N’Dour and Cheikh Lô, Orchestre Baobab’s mixture of rock and Afro-Cuban styles, or Baaba Maal’s genre-busting fusions. Indeed, it is tempting to find in Balde’s naming of a club — and now an album — after the Marigot River not only a nostalgic gesture towards a childhood environment, but also a metaphor for the flowing, subtle, hypnotic, and only occasionally cascading sounds performed by Balde and his fellow musicians.
Le Marigot Club Dakar actually kicks off with a piece sung in Wolof, the language of the major cultural group in Senegal. “Yaye Boye” is sung as a plea from a child to a grandparent following the loss of the mother during childbirth. It’s a rather muted affair, not really helped by the saxophone that meanders between the lines without ever really going anywhere. The Mandinka song “Lalé Kouma”, about the perils of unauthorized emigration from Africa to Europe, is a musically more exciting introduction to the album’s soundworld, combining intricate rhythms, masterfully deployed strings, and dynamic call-and-response vocals to mesmerizing effect. “Kélé Rewbéh” ushers in a trio of Fula songs. Again, the saxophone is utilized in a rather bland manner, as is the guitar which adds slickness but no real excitement; both are counteracted, however, to a large extent by the vocals and percussion, which remain strong throughout the album.
Balde has a keening voice that delivers emotion in a clipped but effective manner, at times not unlike the edgy tones of Baaba Maal or Cheikh Lô, though generally mellower than those singers. The best songs on the album make the most of these strengths. “Nalankobéh” contains a beautiful relationship between Balde’s vocals, those of his backing singers, and the string and percussion instruments. There’s a fascinating rhythm to “Lambé Leydi” that gives the piece a hypnotic flow. “Simbanam”, a cry of protest against those marginalized by society for their lifestyle or beliefs, has a wonderfully yearning Balde vocal answered sublimely by the backing singers. “Thionnimani”, another strong Fula piece, deals with the increasingly news-making practices of witch doctors and diviners. “Egguéh Soumbinam” has a gorgeous surge to it and a magnetic guitar line. These tracks should have broad appeal, though it is arguable whether this music will have quite the international approval given to the more easily distinguishable artists mentioned above, or even that given to Balde’s well-received debut.
This matter is not helped by the blander material on the album, such as the aforementioned opening track or “N’Diaye Yo N’Diaye”, which either despite or because of its comforting bed of electric bass and occasional mercury-stringed brilliance, does not attain the heights of the kind of material presented on Balde’s debut. The French song “Aimé” is similarly bland, though it does contain lovely moments at the higher registers in the solo female vocal and the keening violin line that appears occasionally.
While the Fula material tends to steal the show on this album, one of the most moving pieces is the bilingual “Le Joola”, which takes as its subject the sinking of the Senegalese ferry of the same name off the coast of Gambia in 2002 with the loss of around 2000 people. The track, sung in Wolof and Joola, remembers the lost by presenting its cries of mourning in quite distinct voices which bring to mind the way the tragedy cut across Africa cultures such as the Joola, Fula, Manjak, Mandinka, and Wolof.
“Le Joola” perhaps best represents the simultaneous appeal and dilemma of Daby Balde’s music for an international audience not as well versed as it might be in musical styles or current affairs emanating from Africa. Balde clearly presents an inclusive internationalism that speaks internally to the varied cultures of West Africa, an area whose variety is invariably homogenized and simplified in its mediation by the world beyond its borders. We can learn a lot by studying the narratives and musical arrangements of musicians like Daby Balde, though many of their subtleties still lie beyond us. There is certainly a strong sense of locality to this music and it may well be that it is at its best when sampled locally (the album comes with a voucher for a free drink at Balde’s club; it will have expired by the time you read this, but should be thought of as a more general invite).
All in all, then, Balde’s album may be too local a pleasure for the tastes of many world music fans. But for those who found Baaba Maal’s Television a little too globetrottingly bewildering, this may be the ideal alternative.