Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: Guelewar - Halleli N'Dakarou

The moment this live Guelewar set began playing on my stereo, I stopped in my tracks. What was this?! Did some psychedelic rocker from the 70s get ahold of some West African traditional recording and sample the heck out of it? Was it one of those hybrid bands looking to break boundaries?

No, Guelewar was a short-lived, creative band from The Gambia, the tiny West African country surrounded by Senegal. The original Guelewar began life in 1970 as the Alligators, singing cover songs of U.S. soul music, but quickly began incorporating traditional percussion in one of the earliest experiments leading to mbalax. Led by Bai Janha and Laye Ngom, the group disbanded in 1975 having had made no recordings.

In the late 70s Laye Ngom reformed the band with his cousin Moussa as lead singer. They had two recording sessions that led to four records, but the band only received limited payment for the first, Sama Yaye Demna N'darr, which you can find on the net here. The second album, Tasito, is available here. Until recently band members did not even know that a fourth album was released, in Europe! Guelewar and Ifang Bondi, where Bai Janha went from Guelewar, were the two most influential bands from The Gambia, totally revolutionizing music in the country, while also having a notable impact on Senegal's pop music.

I would have loved to be at the gig when this extraordinary set was recorded! The twelve band members were in the zone, and the remarkably clean recording captures a brilliant performance. The opening track sets the pattern for the entire performance: a fierce rhythm section establishes a torrid pace as guitars and a mini-Moog synthesizer weave cyclical patterns with the vocalists. Listening through this recording, the synthesizer bores grooves on your brain. The guitars can be polite, mimicking the kora, or they can freak out in distorted psychedelic harmony with the Moog. Moussa Ngom's vocals can recall the griots, and then abruptly enter call-and-response discourse with the other vocalists as the percussion ramps up. And always, always, the synthesizer is part of the conversation.

Certainly this was experimental music. It was brilliant! This is one of the most exciting albums I have heard in a long, long time, and I am so thankful that this recording was rescued from near oblivion. Every time I listen to it, I hear new things. It occurs to me that the small labels working hard to uncover "lost," essential music, like Teranga Beat, the producer of this superb release, are moved by the same passion that motivates many of us in the blogosphere. It's a privilege for me to recommend Halleli N'Dakarou, without reservations.

While I've discovered no videos of the band on the internet, here is a slideshow of various images set to my favorite song on this set, "Balla Jigi," a wonderful percussive workout laced with funky mini-Moog keyboards and great singing. Since this blogging platform does not have an easy way to post audio, YouTube is often a solution:

Halleli N'Dakarou is available at the usual download vendors, or here, for the complete physical package with its informative notes.

1 comment:

Apurva Bahadur said...

Thank you for this review. Apurva from Pune, India.