When Mark Ernestus booked his flight to Dakar, he literally knew no one in the city. The renowned German techno and dub producer got the taste for mbalax from a group of Gambian DJ’s who exposed him to the style at a show in Denmark. Predictably, mbalax records were nearly impossible to find in Berlin, but through YouTube and a few well connected record shops in Paris’ eighteenth arrondissement, he found a deep roster of Senegalese artists he hope to contact and request official permission to remix their music. Tickets were booked, but how could he actually make any further plans? He personally knew none of the musicians, let alone where to find them.
That’s where local, on the ground knowledge turned Ernestus’ dreams into reality. Fellow DJ Tikiman hooked him up with Abdoulaye Diack, a Senegalese expatriate who happened to personally know many of the artists that Ernestus had found through YouTube. With Abdoulaye’s help, Ernestus landed in Senegal and hooked up with Bakane Seck, one of the country’s most prolific drummers. It was Bakane who convinced the producer that the most expedient route would be to simply produce new recordings with local musicians, rather than wade through the enormously complicated and messy web of copyright and publishing ownership associated with many of the previously existing recordings. It required a leap of faith and a profound confidence in the group of local musicians that he assembled, but Ernestus took a chance. He booked one Senegal’s top studios, engaged the local mbalax group of Jeri-Jeri, assembled a cadre of the country’s most gifted musicians to support them, and hit the ground running in the studio mere days after his arrival in the country. In the next few days, Jeri-Jeri and the rest of the musicians, with the supervision of Bakane Seck and Ernestus, recorded all of the basic tracks for what would later become 800% Ndagga. Ernestus took the recordings back to his studio in Berlin and honed the raw tracks into the compelling album that now available on Piccadilly Records.
Ernestus has certainly brought his reputation for minimalism to bear on this collection. You won’t find traditional song structures on 800% Ndagga– songs mostly simply start and ever so gradually progress over time. When we say gradually, we mean gradually. Many of these songs are comprised solely of the charming interplay between the drum set and sabar drums, a simple bass riff to anchor it, some very quietly mixed plucked string lines that either cop or compliment the bass line, and, at its most complicated, a vocal line. It’s pure groove in a way that is both in keeping with the traditional origins of many of its components and in line with the techno and dub legacy of its producer. Consider “Xale”. A quick but gradual crescendo of complexity introduces this song, passing swiftly from simply noodling around to an unrelenting groove. The stringed elements and sabar drums play off the straightforward kit drumming to a dizzying effect. By focusing on the mbalax style, Ernestus is able to continue his exploration minimalism and keep every musical element short, terse, and repetitive. However, there are simply so many elements in action at any given moment, and so many of those elements are playing off of or around the rhythms of their fellow components, that the finished product is an almost confounding level of complexity.
Or perhaps take “Ndeye Gueye”, a track that kicks off with an introduction that is either a miracle of improvisation or an extremely canny use of arrangement to simulate the entire track kind of falling into place naturally. Overall, the sound is tense, hypnotic, and groove-tastic. Note the occasional tickle of the jaw-harp and the heavy assault of sabar drums interspersed throughout the rhythm. It is the most representative track from this collection, in that it prominently features kit drumming, traditional percussion steadily pressing against that foundational beat, and riffs that seem completely obvious while still remaining moving. This is also the track where Ernestus’ influence is most plainly audible. The kick drum and electric bass reside in the sub-frequencies of this recording but are featured prominently. The sabar drums are mixed loudly and aggressively. The melodic elements are subtly buried beneath the rest of the recording, allowing them to exist more as suggestion than anything else. In short, it’s mixed like a techno recording, yet is anything but that.
And then there are the stand outs. There is no track on 800% Ndagga that starts as powerfully as “Mbeuguel Dafa Nekh”. The staccato band hits interspersed with the beyond-belief sabar drum bakks (unison rhythmic phrases that are often based on Wolof proverbs) take this record to a completely new level. This song features a beautiful, melismatic vocal performance from Jeri-Jeri’s Mbene Diatta Seck, which is masterfully treated by Ernestus. It is also perhaps the most structurally complicated track, with a full on b-section, bakk drum breaks, and meter changes. A later track, “Bamba,” has groove, as in groove. This may sound like a stretch, but you could bring this track down to New Orleans and everyone would smile. That could be because, out of any of the cuts from this record “Bamba,” has the tamest use of the sabar drums. It feels the most like a song, featuring absolutely top-notch vocals from Mbene Diatta Seck and Ale & Khadim Mboup. But all of that aside, it’s about that groove.
Fortunately, 800% Ndagga is accompanied by Ndagga Versions, a companion disc of instrumental versions of the album proper. Ndagga Versions isn’t nearly as much fun as the full album, but it will hopefully provide fodder for DJs from around the world to further explore the fresh new treats that Ernestus, Jeri-Jeri, and the rest of the musicians who worked on these sessions. The cross-cultural mélange that is 800% Ndagga is already pretty compelling on its own, but maybe the idea of DJs from all over the globe (say, Latin America, or even other parts of Africa) tearing it apart and reassembling it into new, innovative compositions is the most exciting part of this release after all.
800% Ndagga & Ndagga Versions are out now on Piccadilly Records.