Like Elvis’s Sun Sessions or the earliest rap 12-inches, these 23 cuts document the rough and tumble forging of a new sound. Its creators called it mbalax, which means simply “rhythm” in Wolof, the native Senegalese language in which singers Youssou N’Dour, El Hadji Faye, Eric M’Backe N’Doye and Mar Seck sparred, adapting the declamations of Senegal’s griot praise singers to a clamorous mix of modern and traditional music. Psychedelic guitar distended and Senegalese tama hand drums disrupted the Afro-Cuban rhythms with which older groups like Orchestra Baobab had previously dominated Dakar nightclubs.
The mellow “Jalo” knocked out U.K. listeners when it later surfaced on Island’s 1981 compilation Sound D’Afrique. But the definitive Étoile track is “Thiely,” which begins with a minor-key arpeggio and a liquid lead, provided by guitarists Jimi Mbaye and Tolou Badou N’Diaye, and continues as Rane Dallo’s saxophone restates a melody of middle-eastern provenance. Then, during the final minute, the players — guitars, horns, drums and singers — race one another to the climax.
Étoile de Dakar recorded six groundbreaking cassettes in three years, before N’Dour left, along with three other members, to form Super Étoile. The five of these recordings that Stern’s Music made available are all worth investigating, particularly the earliest, Absa Gueye, recorded in an empty nightclub. But taken as a whole, on Once Upon a Time in Senegal, you can hear not just the birth of mbalax, or even of modern Senegalese pop, but the birth of Youssou N’Dour.