14 May 2015

Thione Seck - a 'gewel' for Senegal

Now ready for download and streaming, six crucial albums from Thione Seck.

Thione Seck is a gewel — a griot of the Wolof people of Senegal; by family legacy one who must remember Wolof history and wisdom and stand ready when called upon to intone them for grandees, visitors and the general public. He is also one of Senegal’s greatest singers and there’s a strong, clear connection between the two. 

Thione Seck: visting Sterns, London circa 1999
Thione Seck was born to sing, and in this case the phrase is not a cliché. His great-grandfather was a gewel in the court of King Lat Dior of Cayor, his grandfather was a famous itinerant gewel, and his father was anointed a singer of the psalms of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the Muslim mystic and Senegalese national hero. Singing is in Thione’s genes. Naturally, his brother, Mapenda Seck, is also a gewel and a popular singer.

So Thione (pronounced chōn) was raised and tutored in the gewel repertoire. But in Dakar, the city of his birth in 1955, he grew up with lots more to absorb: the muezzin’s call to prayer, the Arabic pop picked up on shortwave radio from across the Sahara, the Bollywood musicals everyone went to see in downtown cinemas, the Latin records he could buy in a shop on the funky side of the city, and the live sounds of hometown celebrities, especially the Star Band de Dakar. When he was 16 years old he started an amateur group with Mapenda and friends who played the indigenous xalam lute and sabaar and tama drums but did not restrict themselves to traditional Wolof music. Within two years he was singing with a Star Band offshoot called Orchestre Baobab. 

Orchestre Baobab circa 1982, Seck in the middle
Baobab blended a variety of local and foreign styles into something like Senegalese salsa, in which the voice of the Muslim Wolof gewel was as elemental as that of the Santería santero in Afro-Cuban music, and so young Thione Seck was brought in to understudy Laye M’boup, the gewel among the group’s three original singers. A year later, 1974, M’boup died in a car crash and Seck was promoted to the band’s frontline. He immediately made a strong impression on audiences, not only with his marvellously supple voice, which could be soft and intimate one moment and plangent and soaring the next, but also with his words, which were admired for their poetry, pith, and moral integrity. These qualities did not impede his popularity; he wrote and sang some of Baobab’s biggest hits in the years when it was the hottest band in Dakar.

Musician credits for the 'Bamba' album as released by Sterns in 1980
Even so, after recording half the tracks that would be released in the Sterns album 'Bamba', Thione Seck left in 1979 to revive his first group, which would henceforth be called Raam Daan and would home in on a neo-traditional Wolof style, keeping the ancient drums and lutes but adding electric guitars, bass and keyboards. This energetic dance style was called mbalax, and along with Youssou N’Dour and El Hadji Faye of Étoile de Dakar and Omar Pene of Super Diamono, Thione Seck was one of its inventors and early stars.

Thione Seck & Raam Daan released a series of increasingly successful cassettes in Senegal, culminating in 'Dieuleul!', which led to the album 'Le Pouvoir d’un Coeur Pur' being recorded in Paris and released internationally by Sterns in 1988. After more Senegalese cassettes, Seck and his band returned to Paris for the two Ibrahima Sylla productions that Sterns issued on one CD, 'Daaly', in 1997. Seck continued this pattern of recording for local labels in Dakar and for Syllart and Sterns in Paris, where Raam Daan was sometimes augmented by studio musicians. The two excellent 'Demb' cassettes released by KSF in 1998 exemplify the spare but powerful Dakar sound, propelled by percussion and dominated by Thione’s thrilling voice. 'Orientation', the album begun the following year in Dakar and developed over the next three years in Paris, Cairo and Madras, has a richer, more ornate sound that evinces Seck’s love of Arabic and Indian music.

From the back cover of 'Le Pouvoir D'Un Coeur Pur' released by Sterns in 1988
But wherever and however it is made, Thione Seck’s art is grounded in his heritage as a griot — one whose role in society is to teach, entertain and inspire. We need not understand Wolof to hear in the exquisite nuances of his voice that he is a griot par excellence. 


Orchestra Baobab – Bamba (1980 (1993))  

Thione Seck et Le Raam Daan - ...Dieulleul! (1988)

Thione Seck - Le Pouvoir D'un Coeur Pur (1988)

Thione Seck – Demb (1995) 

Thione Seck – Daaly (1997)

Thione Ballago Seck - Demb II (1998)