Concert Hall, March 28
Youssou Ndour promised a party and most members of the audience would probably say he delivered. It’s just that aiming for a party may have been to set the bar too low when another level was possible: a plane on which exuberance and joy sometimes vacated the dance floor to make way for heartache and the haunting echoes of a proud Senegalese tradition. We only heard snatches of what might have been.
Across the first few songs Ndour’s trademark golden tenor voice was more a burnished bronze, and inevitably one wondered if, with its owner now 58, it may have already lost its lustre. But such fears were premature. He was just ensuring his vocal cords survived the full two hours, and soon enough that keening sound – among the more striking voices of contemporary music – was arching up to the heavens – or at least to the Concert Hall’s distant vaulted ceiling.
It was at its most compelling against the night’s sparsest accompaniment on New Africa, which came after the longest break before an encore that I’ve encountered. Elsewhere Ndour’s voice had to tussle for its rightful place in the foreground with the 12-piece band, the emphasis being on music that was a closer cousin of rock than some of his material, while the grooves themselves could feel more wooden than might have been expected.
Standing out was the distinctive, understated, staccato guitar playing of Jimmy Mbaye, an imposing, dignified figure on a stage swirling with colour and motion. The other defining sound of the band was its drumming: not so much what was coming from the kit (Abdoulaye Lo) as from the three percussionists, with Assane Thiam’s tama (talking drum), sometimes a thrilling interlocutor with Ndour’s voice in question-and-answer chants. Babacar Faye and Elhadji Oumar Faye shared duties on timbales and hand-drums, including virtuoso turns on djembe.
Perhaps the real party animal was dancer Moussa Sonko, whose leaps, twirls and acrobatics brightened an already vivid stage, but one on which the music could seem surprisingly routine.