Orientation (Stern’s Africa STCD 1100, 2005)
Senegalese vocalist Thione Seck has always been a versatile guy, a hereditary griot whose skills include singing the traditional music of the Wolof people, the Afro-Latin style (as a member of
Orchestra Baobab in the ’70s) and the same sort of crackling m’balax that Youssou N’Dour shot to fame with.
As a Sufi Muslim, he also came to appreciate music as a mystical force that enlightens as well as entertains. That background, coupled with Seck’s love for sounds stemming from further east of
his Senegalese base of operations, has led to the creation of his latest album. Orientation is, quite simply, an astoundingly good exploration of African, Arabic and Indian sounds. Recorded over a three-year course in Cairo, Dakar, Madras andParis with assistance from visionary producer and arranger Francois Breant, this is both a fusion album and and a brilliantly realized experiment in which a master African singer puts his pipes to work in some unexpected settings. Actually, there is something of a precedent here- the first few tracks have the kind of lush, string-laden spirituality that characterized
Youssou N’Dour‘s Egypt album. Seck is no imitator, though. His voice has a testimonial power and range all its own, shaking things up at every turn.
Especially thrilling is “Woyatina,” a hypnotic jewel of tingling Afro-Arabic beauty. No ground is lost as the proceedings move into India territory, with instruments such as tabla and sarod easing into best-of-two-worlds grooves that Seck once again voices amazingly. “Mouhahibou” is the particular gem here, sporting mainly Indian instrumentation that slip-slides through a loping Africanized rhythm topped by heavenly lead and background singing.
The final three tracks welcome Seck back to Senegal with an abundance of grace and might, reminding us that he is an African artist first and foremost. And a treasured one at that. Clocking in at just under an hour, Orientation‘s running time is generous enough but I found myself wishing it would go on and on. It’s one of those albums in which every word sung and every note played adds up to pure excellence. One of the best releases of 2005, perhaps the absolute best.