After a five-year absence, the “Bob Dylan of Africa” returns with a smooth and accessible new album that takes him firmly into mainstream territory. The Senegalese singer doesn’t rush into things, this is only his second album in twelve years and his first in five, and there’s a palpable feeling of a man who likes to construct his albums like a master craftsman. As his vocal style develops into a soulful croon, and the trademark harmonica becomes less prominent, the songs are built around complex arrangements of strings, brass, keyboards, guitar and percussion.
It’s a rich blend, with the production sometimes almost too lush early on, as Lo front-loads the album with moody, sophisticated balladry. But Taar Dusey really gets things going a third of the way in, with its light reggae, almost mambo, touch. The song’s lyrics are a denunciation of arranged marriages, and serious concerns permeate much of the recording. Le Jola, another reggae-tinged tune, laments the victims of a ferryboat disaster, and Yaye Boye (featuring a beautiful, mournful cello) is a tribute to Lo’s mother, whilst Manko kicks off the mbalax feel of the latter half of the set with a brass-blown plea for democracy.
That nostalgia-inducing mbalax style really takes hold late on, with Wakhal and Jiguen (the latter featuring some welcome funky guitar and brass) bringing hope to those who would like to see the band rock out if and when the albums are brought to a live environment. But it’s back to the smooth, sophisticated approach at the album’s finale, with Ma Fille and a string-laden re-work of Lo’s acclaimed early ’90s ballad Tajabone bringing the collection to a measured conclusion.
It’s a classy, stylish and intricately arranged set of songs, one that is likely to bring a whole new audience to one of West Africa’s most enduring talents.