It’s twenty-eight years since Peter Gabriel’s world tour in support of his fifth solo album So rolled into Athens for a series of five open-air gigs at the Lycabettus amphitheatre. One of the shows was recorded for posterity and later released on video cassette, then DVD, before being digitally remastered and reissued in the DVD/Blu-ray format. As part of that filming, the performance of the opening act – the Tukulor (Senegalese) griot Youssou N’Dour and his band Le Super Étoile de Dakar – was also recorded and in 2012, twenty-five years after the concert in Athens, Ben Findlay (engineer and producer at Real World Studios) commenced work on restoring and remixing the audio from the original two-inch analog master tapes. The result is Fatteliku (Live In Athens 1987), a fascinating document which captures Youssou N’Dour et Le Super Étoile de Dakar at the time of their transition to global fame. Youssou’s five albums had already established his sound – an eclectic mix of traditional mbalax with diverse influences including Cuban rumba, jazz, soul and rock – and brought him a massive fan base throughout West Africa. Youssou and Peter first met in 1980 and their friendship resulted in Youssou being invited to contribute guest vocals to ‘In Your Eyes’, a collaboration which eventually found its place as the opening track on the second side of the original vinyl release of So. The rest, as they say, is history but, as Fatteliku proves beyond doubt, it’s a history that has more than stood the test of time and it’s a joy to revisit with this CD.
Of the five songs comprising Youssou N’Dour et Le Super Étoile de Dakar’s set, four had already been recorded in the studio for various earlier albums (one from Immigrés (1985), two from Nelson Mandela (1985) and one from 1986’s Jamm (La Paix – cassette-only release) while the fifth made it to vinyl for 1989’s The Lion (the album which also included the single ‘Shakin’ The Tree’, co-written by Peter and Youssou). The last track is culled from one of the encores from Peter’s set and features Youssou and two of Le Super Étoile’s percussionists.
It’s instructive to compare the studio recordings back-to-back with the live performances and the opening ‘Immigrés’ is a case in point. The song is drawn from the 1985 album of the same title and its performance there is wiry and uncompromising, shot through with horn breaks and carried on crashing waves of percussion over which Youssou’s unique tenor mourns the plight of his compatriots who, often reluctantly, had been forced to move away from their homeland. The live version has a more sinewy, dancey groove going on; the horns and percussion are still central to the arrangement and, although Youssou’s vocal range has dramatically increased, the interplay between him and backing singer Ousseynou Ndiaye is a real highpoint, as is the extended percussion section about three minutes in. The twin guitars of Mamadou ‘Jimi’ Mbaye and Papa Oumar Ngom are much more upfront and the tightness of their riffing with Thierno Koite’s saxophone is impressive. The call-and-response sequence between Youssou, Ousseynou and the crowd shows how enthusiastic the reaction to the band was.
‘Kocc Barma’ didn’t appear as a studio recording until 1989’s The Lion, an album which was a massive commercial success for Youssou partly, it has to be said, as a result of his duet with Peter Gabriel on ‘Shakin’ The Tree’ which became an international hit, overshadowing almost everything else on the record, which is something of a shame, given the quality of songs like ‘Kocc Barma’. In the live recording it’s perhaps more helpful to consider it a work-in-progress: a spacious midtempo arrangement carried by its intricately polyrhythmic percussion through which Habib Faye’s bass flows like a river under some fearsomely tight unison riffing between the guitars and Youssou’s liquid vocals. Presumably to accommodate the restraints of vinyl, the studio version is about half the length and much faster, although the song’s key elements are still in place and by comparison the sound is somehow much denser.
In 1985, when Youssou and Le Super Étoile recorded the song ‘Nelson Mandela’ for the album Nelson Mandela, the man himself, Nelson Mandela, had served twenty-one years in prison and it would be another five years before he was finally freed. Youssou’s song was as much a tribute to the great man as it was a protest at his shameful incarceration and there’s an almost tangible anger at this injustice in the studio version. It’s also a fine showcase of Youssou’s writing and arranging skills, making good use of jazz and funk influences while still maintaining a distinctly commercial sound and this heady brew translates well to the live version. A bubbling funk rhythm bolstered by Habib’s bass propels it all along at a fair old lick while Youssou’s vocals cover everything from rap to soul. Thierno’s piercing, bluesy sax could probably strip the paint off your car at 100m but it’s in the softer mid-section that the vocals of Youssou and the band really shine.
It’s followed by ‘N’Dobine’, the second number from the Nelson Mandela album, a tight-knit groove that doesn’t let up. Live, the band are locked so far into overdrive that you worry they’re going to be ticketed for speeding. Funk guitar and keyboards bounce off the traditional mbalax rhythms with honking sax wailing into the warm night air and topped off with some sweet harmony singing: this is the sound of a band obviously having the time of their lives. Chuck in a red hot percussion section which sounds like the entire band is hitting something – there’s a special mention in despatches for the powerhouse drumming of Falilou Niang Galass and Assane’s talking drum (tama) which by now seems to be speaking in tongues – this is, excuse the dreadful pun, a sledgehammer of a performance all round and a highlight of the set.
‘Sama Dom (My Daughter)’ initially saw the light of day with the title ‘Sama Doom’ in 1986 on a limited-edition, cassette-only release on a (now defunct) Senegalese label, became a mainstay of the live set and was re-recorded in the studio for The Lion, where it was known as ‘My Daughter (Sama Doom)’. Drawing the live set that night in Athens to a close, its modulating chords and earworm of a riff have a stately power with some phenomenally fast bass playing by Habib and a distinctly disco feel about Falilou’s hi-hats that make it hard to resist, but it’s Youssou’s performance that lifts it into the realm of the truly sublime. Switching between English and Wolof, it’s easy to see why Peter Gabriel referred to Youssou’s voice as being “like liquid gold” as he effortlessly swoops and soars above the band. The video is a delight to see (view it below) as he joins with Ousseynou and Assane in a dance routine that would have given Michael Jackson cold sweats, before proceeding to lead the ecstatic crowd in a call-and-response vocal coda which must surely have had the curators of the Parthenon wondering if it wasn’t all about to come tumbling down around their ears.
Youssou N’Dour et Le Super Étoile de Dakar’s session alone is worth the price of admission but the good folks at Real World Records have seen fit to include a bonus track from later the same night, in the form of one of the encores from Peter Gabriel’s set. His So album went on to yield at least four hit singles around the world, one of which was his duet with Youssou, ‘In Your Eyes’ and which was a natural choice for inclusion in the live set. Youssou, percussionist Babacar and Assane, the man with the talking drum, join Peter and his band for an extended version of the song which, in contrast to the studio version, finds a different rhythmic centre through the Senegalese percussion and the foregrounding of Youssou’s voice. As befits a love song, it’s replete with a smoulderingly smoochy vibe but the highlight – obviously missing from the CD is the astonishingly graceful dancing of Fatou Marietou Koita (not to mention the rest of the band’s birdlike hops, steps and twirls); it looks to have been an amazing night all round and I find myself wishing I’d been there. Sadly, I wasn’t, but this album goes a long way to making up for it: the upgraded sound, the exuberant performance of Le Super Étoile de Dakar and, of course, the exquisite smooth-as-silk voice of Youssou N’Dour all combine to make Fatteliku (Live in Athens 1987) an outstanding and essential collection.
Review by: Helen Gregory