Acoustic music of Senegal finds bigger audience

Introduction to acoustic music in Senegal

The growing number of listeners who prefer more natural sounds instead of electric-driven wizardry has focused attention on acoustic and roots music. One of the most acclaimed musicians in this genre, the blind Senegalese griot guitar player Mansour Seck, is coming out with a new album under the Sterns label. His guitar skill is awesome and his famous “red guitar” has been considered to be the best acoustic guitar on the world at that time. Entitled ‘N’Der Fouta Tooro,’ the album is heavily influenced by traditional Senegalese music.

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Music news & events

LONDON–As some record buyers appear to be moving away from electronic music toward more natural sounds in the mid-’90s, there has been an explosion of interest in “unplugged” acoustic and roots music.

A classic example is Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure’s “Talking Timbuktu,” a huge hit that seems to cross all musical tastes. According to World Circuit, which released the record in Europe, it has sold more than 120,000 copies there.

Now a new release on the Sterns label here, “N’Der Fouta Tooro,” from blind Senegalese “riot guitar player Mansour Seck, is being tipped to make equally large waves. “N’Der Fouta Tooro,” is named after the Northern Senegal region on the border with Mauritania, where Seck comes from. It draws heavily on the songs sung by the “riot, legendary figures in West African history who would sing and recite poetry about history and current affairs of the day.

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The album is a mesmerizing collection of traditional and “riot praise songs accompanied by guitar, kora, percussion, and bass.

According to Seck, the renaissance of interest in African traditional music fits in with general trends around the world.

“The basis of all music is the traditional acoustic music,” he says. “The songs and styles might have been amplified, but still generally they kept the traditional form. Now in West Africa as well as Europe, they have reached saturation point in electric music, and some of the results have been a failure. So people are coming back to the original, the soul of the music.”

During January and February, Seck toured North America with Baaba Maal, who is a longtime collaborator with Seck and is from Seck’s hometown of Poder.

Maal’s latest release for Island’s Mango label, “Firin’ In Fouta,” is a huge success critically, creatively, and commercially. So far it has moved more than 100,000 copies, according to Mango. This release is one of the most successful attempts to make an album that will appeal to a wide range of people without sacrificing any roots feeling, with its compelling fusion of African-originated music such as jazzwith Senegalese traditional music.

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But what makes the region of Fouta so special for the creation of music? Seck says, “The people have managed to keep their traditions alive there, because control of it has remained within their hands. This music is inexorably intertwined with their way of life and destiny.”

“N’Der Fouta Tooro” is the nearest thing to experiencing the essence of Fouta without going there. You can almost visualize the scene-sitting and listening in the wide-open spaces as musicians throw another log on the fire and run riffs with soaring vocals above the guitar, kora, and percussion.

The future sounds of classical music

With the UK’s major labels nurturing a wealth of new mainstream classical talent, the genre looks increasingly likely to defy its doomsayers, writes Andrew Stewart.

Is there life in mainstream classical recordings? Those familiar with the writings of Norman Lebrecht might expect a negative reply. The Evening Standard scribe predicted the classical industry would be finished by last year’s close. Lebrecht’s message was reinforced in April with the publication of Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness, his extended obituary for the industry, complete with lists of the 100 best and 20 worst recorded achievements of a defunct business.

Like all good yarns, Lebrecht’s carries its share of shining truths. Yet the classical majors are showing remarkable vigour for extinct bodies. Universal Classics and Jazz (UCJ) recently hosted a dinner for classical press and broadcasters, offering a tasty pre-prandial showreel of forthcoming core titles and declaring renewed commitment to mainstream classics. Few could recall when Universal last rattled the core classical drum with such force. “We wanted to show what we’ve released in the past year, what we’re releasing in the next year and tell the bigger story of core classics,” recalls UCJ’s general manager Mark Wilkinson.

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Universal’s business as classical market leader has been driven of late by crossover albums and mass-appeal mainstream titles. A succession of new core releases and artist signings suggest the company’s classical labels are looking to shift the balance in favour of “serious” classics. UCJ’s managing director Dickon Stainer comments that news of fine core classical albums on Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips Classics deserves to be shared widely.

“Decca is back in business and is deadly serious,” observes Stainer. “That’s going to surprise those who wrote the label off.” Deutsche Grammophon, he adds, is in robust health, while Decca is set to announce a raft of new signings. “The hope is that the classical divisions within the majors can justify their operations financially. They need to be commercially successful. It would be a disaster for us at Universal if we were the only classical division within a major company. We want to be part of a healthy, competitive classical business.”

Stainer’s desire for healthy competition should be satisfied by EMI Classics and its formidable schedule of key autumn releases, many of them from exciting young classical talents. A succession of new signings, Argentine pianist Ingrid Flita and American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato among them, all deliver albums next year. The label’s profile will also benefit from the September issue of Evgeny Kissin’s EMI debut disc and fresh titles from fellow pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and sopranos Kate Royal and Angela Gheorghiu.

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Natalie Clein’s recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, backed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Vernon Handley, stands as an archetype for EMI’s approach to creating marketable core classical titles. The September release features an outstanding young artist, as articulate offstage as on it, in partnership with one of the venerable greats of British music making. “Natalie can appeal to the wider media,” notes EMI Classics UK marketing manager Lee Woolard. “She can communicate her passion for classical music outside the usual classical sphere. That doesn’t mean she’s selling out. The Elgar is a cornerstone of British classical music and her interpretation is a stunner. Natalie is a wonderful personality, a very modern girl who will appeal to the broader media.”

The unfolding story of classical industry and enterprise should secure at least a chapter on the recently-relaunched Warner Classics and Jazz (WCJ). Although catalogue exploitation remains central to the latter’s revised business model, WCJ has begun to make new recordings under general manager Stefan Bown and is planning to increase activity over the next 18 months. “Catalogue isn’t newsworthy,” he observes. “We are making new recordings to create a profile for WCJ and will soon announce several exciting releases.”

Despite contrary evidence, Norman Lebrecht remains adamant that the recording industry’s contribution to classical music has become irrelevant. “Classical music itself has entered an upturn in terms of talent and broader reception, the broader reception coming though the internet and downloads,” he suggests. “But the recorded part of it and the structure that has upheld those recordings is really a thing of the past.”

Few would beg to differ with the critic’s structural analysis. The classical industry has evolved dramatically over the past decade, developing markets for hugely popular crossover artists, beefing up catalogue exploitation and tempting connoisseurs and neophytes alike with budget lines. When it comes to major classical labels and mainstream recording, A&R and marketing strategies that worked during the heydays of vinyl and CD album production were tested to destruction in the Nineties. The glory days of apparently limitless studio sessions have been replaced by fewer recordings, generally created around a unique selling proposition or carried by the reputation of a particular artist.

Although Mark Wilkinson admits that Norman Lebrecht’s book helped focus minds at UCJ, it was not the main reason for the record company’s decision to beat the media drum with news of core titles. “In the last few months, we’ve taken on board positive and negative messages that have made us look at how we communicate that we’re in the business of selling mainstream classical music,” he explains. The company has commissioned a feasibility study to explore ways of delivering core classical titles to concert audiences and exploit promotional tie-ins with live performances. “We’re going to take on the detractors and sell more core classical music,” Wilkinson asserts. “Public interest in classical hasn’t waned. It’s for us to find creative new ways of reaching and selling to consumers.”

A new account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony from Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, together with UCJ’s home-grown release of baroque arias and songs from Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, stand among examples of titles likely to communicate beyond specialist classical media outlets. The story, explains Wilkinson, contains elements of youth, talent, energy and unbridled optimism. “We’re absolutely passionate about serious classical music,” he continues. “We believe it’s our duty to take classical artists to the widest possible audience, without compromising their work.”

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  • In corporate terms, the returns on mainstream classical recordings may be comparatively small, but the stream of exciting young artists clearly holds commercial value for labels prepared to invest in their careers. In June, Universal Classics hosted a two-day conference for 50 worldwide staff in London, showcasing and discussing core classical releases from Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips Classics and UCJ. The meeting included performances from Nicola Benedetti, Danielle De Niesse, Jonas Kaufmann, Elin Manahan Thomas and Edin Karamozov. “Here are five fundamentally different artists who all represent commercial value to the company on a global basis,” notes Mark Wilkinson.
  • In addition to autumn releases from young artists, Universal is set to unveil albums from such established names as Cecilia Bartoli, Magdalena Kozena and Juan Diego Florez. The package offers UCJ a strong platform on which to grow the core classical market. “If we’re going to engage a larger audience,” notes Stainer, “we have to be dynamic about how we go about it. We need figureheads and young stars really capable of communicating. To most consumers, crossover and mainstream classics are meaningless distinctions: they just want to hear star performers. Performances have to be viscerally exciting in order to register.”

At Sony BMG, Masterworks International general manager and SVP Chris Craker is poised to make 14 new signings. Violinist Lisa Batiashvili and pianist Nikoali Tokarev, who signed deals earlier this year, are poised to record important new albums, while veteran Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s latest thoughts on the Christmas Oratorio are scheduled for release in November. Craker notes that the label has invested heavily in a studio recording of the Brahms and Korngold violin concertos with Nikolai Znaider as soloist, supported by the Vienna Philharmonia and Valery Gergiev. It is also preparing to release a new Bach album from stellar pianist Murray Perahia next March and record an all-Beethoven disc with him.

“I’m developing great relationships with some of our stars here and have been clocking up the air miles to hear thrilling young talent,” explains Craker. “I admit that the market is tough, but it’s not all doom and gloom. We’re having fun doing these things. It’s not like we’re heading off each morning to the gallows. None of us has gone under in the years since Norman began predicting we’d all close down. Yes, we’ve had to lay people off and divert energies into crossover projects, but we’re still working our catalogues and adding to them.”

Anthony Anderson, managing director of Select UK, underlines Craker’s assessment from the perspective of the independent classical sector. “Armageddon has been postponed!” He is convinced there is a viable market for classical recordings, despite tough trading times on the UK high street. “Consumers still want classical music,” observes Anderson. “That hasn’t changed, even if we have seen changes in retail and retail structures. Contrary to the picture painted in Norman’s book, there is still an active group of companies, majors and independents producing a large number of classical records every month, many of which we originate or distribute. Norman is talking about an old model of major labels making classical recordings, which has changed. Of course, it’s a challenge to sell classical titles from major and independent labels when there is less bricks-and-mortar space available for them. But it’s not an impossible challenge, especially with possibilities of marketing through the internet and non-traditional outlets.”

Select’s success in developing new markets and priming existing ones with budget releases on its Naxos label has doubtlessly influenced Sony BMG’s decision to hand its UK classical business to Anderson and his sales team. When it comes to selling core classics, whether on specialist indie labels or under global brands, the boss of Select Music UK is cautiously optimistic about the future. Downloading and the creation of discs on demand, he says, will play an increasing part in the classical sales ecosystem, although Anderson is certain that physical product has a long life yet to run.

Classical music

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The classical record business is either immune to or ignorant of the laws of supply and demand. Label executives virtually everywhere are crying the blues about slow sales, yet few indicate any plans to cut back. As a result, the market remains … [Continue reading]