In this in-depth interview taken from the most recent issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, we speak with the reclusive but seminal techno producer about his new project sculpting the sounds of African mbalax music and the journey that led to it. Photo of Mark Ernestus (above) by Mbene Diatta Seck. All other photos by Mark Ernestus.
Over the past twenty years, Mark Ernestus has revolutionized electronic music’s relationship to minimalism, drawing on dub’s skeletal structure and sense of spatiality as a foundational musical parameter. While his less-is-more aesthetic was always cross-genre, Ernestus’ focus has recently shifted towards the Senegambian polyrhythms and vocal stylings known as mbalax. His latest release, 800% Ndagga, features a host of musicians surrounding the percussion-centric Dakar-based band Jeri-Jeri, led by griot Bakane Seck.
Mark, you’re known as one of the world’s leading innovators of dub and minimal techno, but your latest releases, 800% Ndagga and Ndagga Versions, center exclusively on African mbalax music. Can you describe mbalax and ndagga and the difference between the two?
Ndagga is a more specific but less common term for mbalax, which is a genre of urban popular music predominant quite specifically in Senegal and Gambia, on the coast of West Africa. It fuses traditional, tribal music—mainly percussion—and more modern elements like electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drum kit. It always features sabar drums, typically played by ensembles recruiting from griot families or clans. The term sabar can refer to the drum in its various shapes and sizes, but also to a dance or a gathering with traditional drumming and sometimes singing.
Understood. But why did you follow the drum trail in the first place?
I became aware of mbalax for the first time when I played with Tikiman at an open-air festival in Denmark a couple of years ago. Right before our gig, a DJ team from Gambia was playing this exciting music with these unbelievable rhythms for two or three hours. I listened to the whole set and just got hooked. I couldn’t get it out of my head anymore. Of course, my main focus in producing is always the rhythm or groove and the atmosphere or overall sound. What these guys were playing was very different from anything I knew. Yet I felt quite at home with it at the same time. Being struck by a sound completely new to you like that; it’s special and it doesn’t happen often. So first thing the next day I had to find out more about it.
Was it easy to find mbalax music in Berlin?
Forget it. Even on the web it seemed like there’s hardly more than a dozen albums, and those of course were more on the commercial end of the spectrum. Actually YouTube was my best source. It’s an important channel for this kind of music, maybe more so than records. The next step was to check the African record shops in Paris’ eighteenth arrondissement, where I found at least a few CDs and cassettes from the search list that I had by the time. But still I totally knew that there’s more where this came from, so to speak. I knew that it’s a big genre that has been around for a few decades, with roots going back hundreds of years.
Do you have an explanation for why this centuries-old traditional music sounds so futuristic to our ears?
I guess that’s why I was so fascinated by it. I hear elements in this music that I have always liked in any music, especially in dub and reggae or in electronic music. Actually I always thought if you love techno and you don’t at least appreciate dub or other music that is based on reduction and repetition there’s something wrong. There’s not supposed to be a divide there. I have always been interested in music reduced to its essence. That’s what drew me to dub and then house and techno in the first place. I think house and techno were so liberating in the beginning because it radically focused and relied on the functionality of the rhythm. And even though mbalax is rather dense and in that sense the opposite of being reduced or minimalistic, I feel a strong relatedness between these genres in terms of repetitiveness and the emphasis on groove. Most modern mbalax is actually quite dense and has layers of stuff that I’d rather do without, like lots of brass keyboard, electric guitars playing too melodic for me, vocals with hardly ever a break or extensive bakks. But when I listen to it with a producer’s ear, I can virtually mute those elements and enjoy what’s underneath: complex but smooth polyrhythmic grooves.
What are bakks?
I would describe them as basically rhythm breaks or changes that can be quite complex. It is sometimes translated as choreography and it corresponds to dance moves. It’s a science in itself and from what I understand it also relates to the local languages and goes back to the times when drums were used to deliver messages over long distances.
That’s why the small drums are called talking drums?
The talking drums—or tamas—take it even further, they get strapped under the arm and squeezed to change the tuning while being played so they can literally almost talk. Anyhow, the bakks are important in the local context; they are like a musical language or code. Sometimes they are just rhythmically brilliant breaks, but if you, like me, don’t understand the code, they can also be difficult to relate to and disrupt the groove.
And you can’t expect your audiences to listen to the music with a producer’s ear . . .
Exactly. You can’t play stuff in a club that even you yourself can only enjoy when you imagine some of the elements weren’t there. I had this fantasy: what if in mbalax, like in reggae, you had the tradition of always releasing an instrumental or rhythm only version along with the straight vocal version. I guess that was my biggest hope and the best case scenario going to Senegal initially: not just to dig deeper but potentially making contact with people who own the rights and have the multitracks of some of my favorite tunes in order to do stripped down instrumental mixes. Still I tried not to have any expectations beyond finding some more CDs or cassettes and getting a bit closer to where this music comes from.
I once met Youssou N’Dour in the early nineties. He told me about the Senegalese tradition of oral storytelling and that these storytellers are called griots. They even have this saying: “Whenever a griot dies, it’s like a library burning to the ground.”
So true. For the longest time there was no written history in West Africa and still today the griots are in charge of passing on the traditions and oral history. Abdoulaye Diack once explained it to me like this: when a griot tells you about your grandfather’s grandfather and the heroic deeds of your ancestors, you just get goose bumps all over and you can’t help but handing him banknotes to make sure he goes on and on. On the other hand, if he doesn’t give you goose bumps you can tell him to fuck off. Most of the drummers—like the majority of singers and dancers there—come from long lines of griot families. They were born as drummers, and most of the older ones never went to school. So they see themselves very consciously as conveyors of ancient traditions who at the same time develop it further and that way keep it a living thing. When it comes to production though, I don’t see this idea that you see for example in Jamaica—to use the studio as an instrument, to use it more creatively. In Senegal some productions sound quite good, others don’t. But the studio is just a means to an end. Maybe it’s because live music is considered more important than recorded music, especially when it comes to dance music.
Mbene Diatta Seck looking thoughtful. The vocalist often combines singing, MCing, and coordinating dances when performing live with mbalax combo Jeri-Jeri.
So, what happened when you arrived in Dakar?
Well, I have to go back a bit, because I first arrived in Gambia. English is the official language there, and I had two phone numbers there, whereas in Senegal I didn’t have any contacts at all. I also don’t speak French. But just two weeks before my flight, after I had just gotten all my vaccinations against yellow fever, typhus and other diseases, I met a friend of Tikiman, Abdoulaye Diack, who has been living in Germany for about twenty years. So of course I was keen to quiz him about Senegal and mbalax, and I also showed him some of my YouTube favorites. Turns out he knows half of the people in the videos because he used to be a dancer and he is from Kaolack. He basically grew up with some of the older brothers of Bakane Seck—one of the most prolific drummers of Senegal—and he even had his current mobile number at hand. On top of that he had booked a flight to leave two days before mine, so he insisted that I should not waste any time in Gambia, but to come straight to Kaolack where we should take it from there. By the way, Kaolack is supposed to be one of the dirtiest cities in Africa, plastic waste everywhere. In the Ndar Gou Ndaw neighborhood where all the Jeri-Jeri drummers come from, there is tap water but the sewage canals along the wide dust roads are open and don’t flow anywhere, at least not in the dry season. I think if you ever fell into one of them you’d wish you had never been born.
Besides the grime, what is the city like?
Somewhere I read Kaolack is described as Senegal’s most “sizzling” city, though I’m not sure if it was meant culturally or climatically. It does get really hot there and for some reason a lot of Senegal’s great drummers come from there. When you check it out on Google Earth you’ll see the streets are symmetrically laid out like a chess grid. Most housing blocks are more like compounds: big square properties that are enclosed by cement brick walls or corrugated metal. Within these compounds you always have an inner courtyard where the people work, eat or socialize, that is surrounded by rooms . . . or shacks.
So basically you didn’t have any meetings set up in Dakar or Kaolack when you traveled to Senegal in January 2011?
No, but by the time I booked my flight, all I knew was that there was definitely a lot of great music to find. With Diack’s help it became a bigger thing as it was easy to hook up with Bakane and all the others.
You seem to like adventures. You don’t hesitate traveling to far-flung places to come closer to the music.
I guess, but who could resist given the possibility? I assume you are also referring to my visits to Detroit in the early nineties, which is actually a funny parallel in some ways. At that time my record store Hard Wax had started to import directly from labels and distributors in the US, and I was keen to see the place and meet our contacts there. Then when the Tresor club opened around that time it was a win-win-win situation. They had an interest in DJ and booking contacts, the label came later. We had an interest in label and distribution contacts, and the guys in Detroit also were interested in both. By the way, my first trip there was almost exactly to the day twenty years before my first trip to Dakar, and thinking about it I’d say Detroit at that time was not a more likely place to visit than Dakar in 2011. Detroit was almost synonymous with “murder capital”, but without the urban farming and techno, which was mostly unrecognized within the city and just happening underground. And from a 1991 perspective— it’s funny to even mention this today—this was ages before we had email or even mobile phones. Calling or faxing to the US clocked in at 3.96 deutschmarks per minute. This is burnt into my memory.
How did you actually convince Bakane Seck to record music with you?
As I said before, I had this “utopian” fantasy of finding people who own the rights and possibly multitracks of some of my favorite stuff and to negotiate the possibility to remix and release it here. So I told Bakane about this idea and what my background and my interest were. His immediate response was, “Why so complicated?” The point being: who knows how many people you will have to convince and who knows what they’re going to expect financially because licensing is not a common thing there and people tend to believe anything a toubab—that’s a West African word for white Europeans or visitors—shows interest in is worth a million. As a live and studio musician he suggested to book a studio the next day instead and to record everything just how I wanted it from scratch. This way I would own all the necessary rights and as a result would have total freedom to work with the recordings. But among all the best-case scenarios I had imagined, setting up a studio session was the one option I had ruled out. I had deemed it simply impossible to achieve on a first two-week visit.
But it obviously did happen. What precipitated that?
Well, the next day Bakane asked me exactly what I wanted and I tried to explain it to him as best as I could. I asked him about specific people I was interested in. Some of them were easy to get a hold of for him, some were even from his family. Others would be difficult to deal with or they were not in the country. He then started making calls on his three mobile phones and a few hours later came up with a budget for three days of studio recordings including the fees for the musicians. It was not pocket money, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t possibly let pass . . . even though it was exactly what I had ruled out beforehand. However, if I’d had doubts about Bakane’s sincerity I wouldn’t have done it. I think the same goes for him, vice-versa.
What exactly would have held you back?
The sabar drummers and the others work as studio and live musicians on a regular basis. Normally, a producer or manager hires them. It was important for me for it to be clear that this was not a case of a toubab passing through with some money to spend on some recordings. I didn’t want anyone to have the attitude: whatever that guy wants—as long as we get paid. But this wasn’t the case at all. Every single one of them was serious and could relate to my comments and suggestions to reduce the bakks, to play the keyboards and electric guitars percussively, not too melodic and that the vocals should not be too dominating. If you compare the overall result with locally produced recordings you’ll notice quite a difference.
(left to right) Babacar Seck, Serigne Mamoune Seck, Kora Faye and Bakane Seck playing in sabar overdubs at Prince Arts Studio in Dakar. The drum is generally played with one hand and one stick and historically was used as a form of communication between villages in a kind of musical morse code. The different rhythms correspond to phrases that could be heard for over fifteen kilometers.
How would you describe your contribution to the recording sessions?
Giving the guidelines roughly of what kind of rhythms to play and how to play them, especially when it came to the other instruments; to keep the focus on interplay and texture and to avoid anything too solo-like. I guess we would consider that interplay an African quality in music, but funny enough, in this situation I was the one enforcing it. The word most used throughout the session was “simple”—in African French pronunciation. I mention this because even later, in the process of arranging and mixing, I put a lot more work into simplifying it or clearing it up. In our context though, I think the result still sounds pretty dense and complex.
One day of preparation doesn’t seem like a long time—neither for the musicians, nor for you.
The musicians were playing well within their comfort zone, so they didn’t really need a lot of preparation. This is their life. But the night before the recording session I did feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders not to blow it, to the extent that it was in my hands. It was too great of an opportunity and also too much money to consider it a trial-and-error thing. But I knew it was going to be a complex situation with many unknowns.
So what was your point of reference? Were there any similar experiences you were able to draw upon?
The closest thing I can think of was working with different reggae singers. No matter how big or experienced an artist is and how much you respect him or her, you can’t force a result. A recording session can be magic or it can be just a recording session. All you can do is try to find the right balance between giving room and giving directions. I played Bakane a number of tunes in the evening, pointing out to him what particular aspects I liked in them and what kind of grooves within the genre I was most interested in. At the same time I made it clear that I didn’t want them to just replicate my examples and that something genuine should come from our session. So, when we finally started the next day we first recorded the sabar drums and right away it was clear that this was working. Bakane’s capability to mediate my guidelines to the musicians was great. Most of them didn’t speak any English, but I hardly felt any language barrier. The musical understanding was working great, also when I interfered and suggested changes. Sometimes followed by brief discussions in Wolof. I didn’t understand the words but I felt clearly that they were with me.
It all went smoothly? This isn’t what you’d necessarily expect from a recording session where you don’t share a common language, no?
“Smoothly” is not the right word. You had an average of twenty people running around between the small rooms where one of the doors wouldn’t open, another one wouldn’t close. Then the power went out several times and the power generator was broken. You have to know that normally even a barbershop has it’s own generator there. On the third day all of us waited in the dark for about four hours before we called it a day, because it could come back on any minute, of course. Then even most of the younger drummers have at least two mobile phones, so a few minutes into the recording you would hear a prayer call or whatever ringtones they had. Then Bakane would collect all the phones, put them on a pile in the control room and start over. Of course it only lasted until after the next break. But between all these circumstances the sessions actually were all very focused, and it was quite challenging for me to decide in real time when to give more specific directions and when to keep going in order to avoid lengthy discussions and keep up the attention level with ten drummers in the recording room and the others listening in the control room. Suffice to say the studio clock was ticking. So I guess it did run smoothly in an African way. Should I mention that during two of the four days I had fever from food poisoning? I actually got it after the only non-African meal I had in all my visits.
So, in the end you’d call it a successful trip?
That would be a gross understatement. I had booked the flight without knowing anyone there, not speaking Wolof or French, and having no expectations. I came back with an extensive Pro Tools session featuring many of the players I was interested in and even owning the rights to use and mix it whichever way I want. I couldn’t wait to start working on all this great material and throw it on the mixing desk. It turned out quite a challenge though to deal with the density in the mix.
Do you think that your visit to Kaolack has altered the way Bakane and the musicians you work with see their music?
I’d say yes, but I think it’s a bit too early to really tell. In some ways, the common understanding is surprisingly quick and accurate considering the language barrier. But then again the approach is so different—that is, between dealing with recorded, produced music on my part, and mainly just playing it on theirs. The last time I went, I had finished CDs for the musicians so they could better prepare for upcoming concerts, and it turned out hardly any one of them owns a functioning “replicator machine”—a CD player or burner. But when eventually all of them had managed to get the tracks onto their mobile phones, the feedback they gave me on the mix and production was really enthusiastic, particularly regarding clarity and transparency.
And how would you measure your own success in Senegal?
I guess if some day we’re stuck in traffic in Dakar and the street merchants try to sell us bootlegs of the album through the car window, then the circle will be complete. ~