• Sun. Sep 26th, 2021

Senegalese drumbeats in the mix: like the sound of pattering rain


Jul 28, 2021

Berlin techno pioneer Mark Ernestus meets Senegalese mbalax sound: Ndagga Rhythm Force and the album "Yermande".

Drum-driven: Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force Photo: Hardwax

Uniform beats do not put the imagination in chains, they gradually lull the listener on the dance floor. It’s different with Mark Ernestus and his new project Ndagga Rhythm Force: there you hear branching drum patterns that sharpen the senses. Twelve Senegalese musicians from the capital Dakar have joined forces with the Berlin producer and founder of the record store Hardwax, and the music they have created together develops its thrust in the dancing, also in the counter-running of various rhythm structures. Even notorious dance muffle jerks in the whirlpools of this flow with sheer pleasure.

Ndagga Rhythm Force recently released "Yermande", their third album: six excursions into rhythm and sound, in which drums, hand drums and percussion instruments play tone-setting roles. Mark Ernestus even makes the heads of the drums vibrate with his mix.

By first isolating hi-hat and other elements in the studio and then reintegrating them into the sound picture, he sets special accents. The Berliner has processed the tracks in his sense, boiled down melodies, sometimes even sampled drums and put them to the basic tracks. Often Ernestus also operates with reverb, in this his signature shows similarities to the working methods of Jamaican producers who have obtained dub versions from reggae songs, stripped down bass-heavy and extremely effective mixes.

On the one hand, the sound on "Yermande" lives from reduction, and on the other hand, Ernestus highlights individual tracks in the mix, such as the vocals of singer Mbene Diatta Seck in the title track. The performance of the musicians should not be diminished: As many as four members of the band devote themselves to the beats, using them not only to push the melodies, which are sparsely padded with synthesizer, bass, guitars and vocals, but also to compete with them, rubbing up against Seck’s evocative lines in particular. The melodic instruments of guitar and synthesizer also play rhythm-oriented patterns. This style is called Mbalax. In Senegal, it is classified as pop.

Roots in folk music

It is drums that transport the Mbalax sound to a higher, meditative level. Ernestus has also been gripped by this fever since he first heard Mbalax sound during a DJ engagement in Copenhagen in 2008. The music on "Yermande" has roots in traditional folk music and ancient griot rites, but sonically it is surgically precise 21st century.

Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force: "Yermande" (Ndagga/Hardwax); live: October 11 at "HAU" Berlin, October 12 at "Desi" Nuremberg, October 15 at "Pfalzbau" Ludwigshafen.

"Lamb Ji", the opening song, is named after the Senegalese form of wrestling, the most popular sport in the country. Those sporting events are accompanied by drumming and chanting. The musicians of Ndagga Rhythm Force also let the drums do the talking. When searching for the roots of Mbalax music, one finds it in the history of slavery.

It does not begin with the transatlantic slave trade between Portugal, Spain and the New World in the 15th century, but already earlier, at the beginning of the 11th century. The Islamization of Africa began even before that, and it went hand in hand with colonization along ancient trade routes and was characterized by regional peculiarities. In the territory of northern Senegambia, the Berber dynasty of the Almoravids established a caliphate around 1040 AD and subjugated "infidels" in a holy war. In battle, they used black slaves from what is now Senegal as soldiers – and drums became part of the warfare.

"Drums are amplifiers of language," writes New York musicologist Ned Sublette in his book "Cuba and its Music. From the first Drums to the Mambo." Interestingly, music from the Caribbean and Latin America is in turn a foil for the now popular mbalax style.

The most beautiful track on "Yermande" is called "Jigeen" – and that would bring us back to the 21st century, because "Jigeen" is the word for woman in the Wolof language. The song is uptempo, initially with just a hand drum and the voice of Mbene Diatta Speck. "Men should respect the dignity of women. Every woman is her mother," it says. Then the percussion and guitar patter away. It sounds like a never-ending rain.

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