There are times when the warm-blanket jazziness of Patrice Larose’s guitar threatens to turn this nuevo flamenco album into a kind of acoustic chill-out with ethnic flavouring, but then something will happen to pull it back from the brink. Usually that something is Julia Sarr’s voice.
This is not to say that Larose isn’t talented. He plays well, but almost an hour of good-hearted twanging on its own would be too much to bear. It’s Sarr who really makes the album unusual. For a start, she sings in Wolof. Singers who accompany flamenco guitars do not normally sing in Wolof. Youssou N’Dour might sing in Wolof, Ismael Lô might sing in Wolof, any other singer from Senegal might sing in Wolof, but flamenco singers are usually Spanish, and they don’t. So: being Senegalese by birth despite spending twenty-five years in France, Julia Sarr sings in Wolof. The title is in Wolof too: it means, So I’ve Observed.
She brings in other West African qualities that have nothing to do with language. Occasionally she reaches a note that sounds like a lighter, female version of those moments when Salif Keita’s voice rises and soars towards the ceiling and then curls over and enriches itself. One of the aha! moments of Set Luna came while I was reading the press kit and learnt that Patrice Larose had once told Keita that, “his singing reminded me of El Camerón [de la Isla, the famous flamenco singer who died in 1992]. He said El Camerón is his favourite singer in the world!” And there is, indeed, something flamenco about the way some of the big-name singers from Senegal and Mali throw their voices out as if they don’t expect them to return.
Salif Keita refines his voice though, he lets it savour the heights and then he lassoos it and draws it back, and on this album so does Julia Sarr. She never quite reaches duende, the “furious, burning” ecstasy that Federico García Lorca was writing about when he described the flamenco singer La Niña de Los Peines: “She had to rob herself of skill and safety: that is to say, banish her Muse, and be helpless, so her duende might come, and deign to struggle with her at close quarters.” Sarr is always skilled and never helpless, and yet occasionally she seems to be aiming for duende. On “Yubuma,” for instance, her voice hurtles upward and briefly she seems to be on the brink of banishing the Muse — but then she ends the song too soon and the moment withers before it can be completed. You can almost hear her inner voice murmuring, “Don’t go too far.”
She suffers another setback on “Set Luna Djamonodji” when she’s joined by Youssou N’Dour. His statesmanlike purity is so much stronger than her sweetness that her voice retreats and for the duration of the track she seems to have been relegated to the status of a backing singer on her own album. When he isn’t there, her voice comes to the fore again and sings serenely. It moves like an arrow through the beginning of the opening song, “Namana,” and Larose’s guitar responds with a flurry of bright-toned notes while a pair of hands clap rapidly and a percussive bwanging bobs around in excitement. If Set Luna had more of these moments and less of the mellow then it would be more compelling. It’s not bad as it is — anyone who liked the Javier Ruibal disc that Riverboat put out a couple of years ago will probably have a good time with it — but it could be better.