Although among Europeans it's the British who have the reputation of being most resistant to Youssou N'Dour's international recordings, refusing to buy his World Cup "anthem" and cussedly preferring his more authentic African sound, the Parisian buzz concerning N'Dour's latest concert was pretty lacklustre. "You won't need to stay more than three numbers, it's all just boom, boom, boom," says a colleague going instead to a Cuban gig.
After three songs I'm still there and entertained: there are some excellent musicians up there, even if the modern band is clearly inferior to the old Super Etoile de Dakar. The beautiful brass section's gone, the synthesiser complement is doubled, there's an extra acoustic guitar, played by a white man in a ponytail, and the haunting Senegalese harmony choruses are ditched in favour of syrupy Whitney Houston-ising. On the other hand, there is also the magnificent Assane Thiam on tama talking drum, playing twice as well as ever, incredible as that may seem, the clipped but melodic lead guitar figures and Youssou's own voice, still fine. The real problem is the new international material.
Although Youssou can still write a plaintively catchy stunner, witness the recent Senegalese hit "Birima", the latest batch of English-language songs is disastrous, not only for imposing on Youssou the pointless and undignified obligation of singing in an alien tongue, but above all for having him utter in it collections of dire rock platitudes - "I wanna see you touch the sky, I know you're gonna make it through".
The previous evening saw another encounter between the forces of tradition and modernity, potentially more interesting, in the launch performance of the French producer Frederic Galliano's Frikyawa CD project, whereby an assortment of cutting-edge international DJs work on the music of traditional Malian artists, in at least 50 per cent of cases with promising results.
The performance featured Galliano himself, sitting behind a laptop computer, to the rear of the seven-piece group of the Malian Neba Solo, surrounded by traditional rattle-ear hide drums, a metal caregna slicer and two big wooden balafon xylophones. If you're going to pick an African instrument to shine in competition with, a balafon is not a great choice, its rivetingly deep, grave voice, understandably credited with magical powers, normally proving commanding enough to shrug off the average electronic embellishment like a particularly ineffectual squadron of gnats. And Neba Solo's double balafons, modified with extra bass keys, are known for their extra power and depth.
Galliano responded to this with tact and subtlety, inserting minimal percussion, bass, drones and miscellaneous tweaks, and even at one point departing the stage altogether, leaving a faint wah-wah sitar effect doodling away under the hypnotic Malians. If the partnership continues, we're doubtless going to see Neba Solo calling out at moments like this: "Frederic! How many times do I have to remind you to switch off the laptop when you go out!" According to Neba Solo, his older Malian audience disapproves of the electronic experiment, fearing that he's about to abandon his own music for techno.
On the evidence so far, Galliano's label has too much taste and integrity for this to happen, but it pays to be vigilant, especially where the international marketing department is concerned.