I can say with near certainty that you, dear reader, listen to music on a daily basis. You love it. You gain some deep satisfaction from it. Sometimes, it might make you cry; at other times, it will all but bypass your neurons and persuade parts of your body to quiver, jerk, stamp and/or wave involuntarily. But a lot of the time, it’ll be playing in the background, accompanying one of the tasks or activities you are performing, be it cooking, working, or going for a jog.
Some music is not just too good for background music: it is incompatible with it. It is impossible to perform the task in hand; the music muscles past your cochlea, stealthily wraps its tendrils around your unsuspecting brain, and forces you to STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND LISTEN.
I usually can’t abide such gushy, circumlocutory openings to reviews, but I now find myself the perpetrator of one, because I find it difficult to come right out and say that Mekfoul District could, if more widely heard, be the future of popular music. Or perhaps it’s the apotheosis of all the popular music that has preceded it. All I know is that I am baffled by its obscurity, and frustrated by its lack of recognition by people ‘in the know’.
I discovered Toubab All Stars by chance; my girlfriend had seen them live at WOMAD, Wiltshire, England in the Summer of 2010. She bought home their CD, and encouraged me to listen. At first, I warmed to it because it was largely in French, a language I was trying to keep up; it was also catchy and melodic. After borrowing it and listening to it repeatedly through earphones, its importance hit me like a cymbal attached to a battering ram.
Mekfoul District embodies everything that is or could be great about modern popular music. It’s upbeat, optimistic, and highly danceable, but is also yearning, and critical of several hallmarks of the modern world. It’s self-aware: the All Stars’ self-referencing recalls the playfulness of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, but also the way modern rappers and so-called R&B artists blatantly state their name in their songs. The All Stars are far less moronic about it, consciously self-mythologising, refracting, and using different ethnic styles to underscore the multinational nature of the band. Best of all, the band knows its history and its predecessors, but not a single second indulges in nostalgia: the whole piece stands in the present, listens to the past, and points boldly to the future.
How can it reflect past, present and future at once? Words can’t really do justice to the skill with which this is executed. “Hang ‘em High” is an open homage to Morricone; “Ring of Fire” is a skanking, ska-soaked Johnny Cash cover. “Ali Bo Mayé” thrillingly chronicles a boxing match the band-members were probably too young to have remembered (the infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’); the song features snippets of sports commentary à la Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, serving not to euphemise adolescent sex but to celebrate a historic, near-mythical encounter. Clearly, the album is steeped in the past, both in musical style (ska, country, ‘60s movie soundtracks) and in subject matter. So how does it mirror the present?
For one thing… well, its subject matter. “Tous À Vélo” deals with “des embouteillages” (traffic jams) and their environmental consequences, humorously exhorting listeners to jump on a bike and cycle everywhere. The beat is so elastic, so tightly wound, that I am physically incapable of repressing the bounce in my foot, be I sedentary or standing up when I hear it. Other subjects include urban taxi-driving, and modern capitalism: in the perhaps-not-so-subtle “Business Class”, Marx and Engels are name-checked after some dizzyingly rapid rapping.
The band’s aesthetic also embodies the vibrant colour of the 21st Century: they cram in rhythms, themes and ideas that straddle continents and millennia. Styles range from nursery-rhyme-type sing-alongs to updated reggae to soukous to hardcore rap; songs are sung in French, Spanish, English, and Wolof. The music is so fantastic, so smooth and yet so human, that non-French-speakers will only get marginally less out of the album than francophones. Percussion and guitar are fluid and imaginative (picture Topper Headon backing Franco Luambo Makiadi), while superbly arranged horns leaven an already buoyant record.
Strangely, the band seems more influenced by American and Congolese music than by their native Senegalese mbalax, but the staggering eclecticism on display is what gives the album its currency and its possibilities for the future: the ultimate music is one that is vital, all-inclusive, and encyclopaedic but not academic. For decades, popular music has been reflecting globalism and globalisation: Paul Simon, Taj Mahal, the Clash. The All Stars are not the first, but they are arguably the most natural and successful to date: the styles and rhythms on display on Mekfoul District are kaleidoscopically global without being ostentatiously so, and achieve a gloriously complex synthesis that can only be dreamed of by other bands.
Don’t be fooled by the album’s ambience and general tone, exemplified by its opening track: this is not just a party album. It isn’t just something to show your friends how cultured you are, or to show them that ‘world music’ can be fun and catchy. No, this should be remembered as art, artefact, organically artificial – because it is made by people, and its humanity is palpable.