Africa’s greatest superstar and elder statesman of global sounds wears his crossover obligations lightly in a back to basics, stripped down pop album. There’s very little in the way of Youssou’s famous rocking mbalax sound on Rokku Mi Rokka, and none of the elegant Sufi soul of his previous album Egypt. Instead just guitar, drums, bass, that cut-glass voice and the occasional hint of horn or organ create a series of snappy, hook-laden pop tunes. It doesn’t always work well — tracks such as Africa Calling (a return duet with Neneh Cherry, who recorded the remarkable 7 Seconds hit with Ndour) and the opener 4-4-44 are too self-conscious in their aim of attracting a Western audience, and guest appearances from members of Orchestra Baobab can’t rescue Xel from being a heavy, clodding beat-burdened mess of a song. But Youssou’s aim is true elsewhere, as he weaves myriad influences from throughout Senegal into the collection. Sama Gàmmu is probably the best example of this, a shuffling beat and subtly effective electric guitar figure supporting N’dour’s stirring duet with Ousmane Kangue, who hails from near the Mauritanian border in the north of the country. And man of the moment Bassekou Kouyaté from Mali brings a welcome light touch with his airy ngoni playing on the album’s five best tracks, most notably the celebratory Baaye Faal (dedicated to the leader of the Sufi clan of that name); the laid-back, catchy Dabbaax; and the highlight of the album, Létt ma, where Kouyaté adds earthy ngoni fills to a jauntily bucolic tune, with Youssou at his soaring, soulful best. Some great moments, then, but overall Rokku Mi Rokka doesn’t feel like the classic return to form that some people are suggesting. Hopefully, a more relaxed approach throughout will deliver that next time round.
This review first appeared on www.flyglobalmusic.com