Mark Ernestus is a mythic figure. Whilst his counterpart/point Mauritz Von Oswald moved beyond the Basic Channel blueprint, swaying to and fro across the frontwire of electronic music (albeit with remarkable results), Ernestus’ frequency (and choice) of output has been decidedly more understated, perhaps somewhat more aligned to the original ethos. Understated however, not in scope or sound, but in the way he seems to want to engage — with a strictly singular, silent vision.
Yet 22 years on from “Phylyps” and Rhythm & Sound, his influence seems to echo across the underground sugar caves of dance music, like that of a dark, hooded man who has silently watched over proceedings, uttering only a few words in the process. Observe this money quote from a rare interview: when asked about the process of new artist discovery/re-release, Ernestus’ simple and stoic reply is (pause) “you have to know people.” No sign of sensationalism, worldly curiosity, vivid affectation. No fanfare. It’s pretty basic: you have to know, you have to dig. Yet that answer also begets a certain arrogant wisdom, a cryptic knowledge of the where the good stuff is found, and a rare knack to make that connection.
Ndagga, a groundbreaking series of 12”s that he has envisioned and spearheaded on a new label, seems to have partly stemmed from this “knowing people” — not just in the right places — but within the right context, the right frequency and most of all, with that certain shared headspace. That geography being Senegal, the context being African dub and the shared headspace? A severe obsession with raw polyrhythms, borne out of ridiculous multilayered “talking drums” which sound like they were put down on wax from the first live take itself (as impossible as that sounds), inside a million-dollar studio in the sky engineered by Zeus himself (or in other words, Ernestus’ own).
To backtrack, Ernestus’ growing relationship with Mblax (a frantic fusion of traditional and modern Senegalese dance/bass music) had necessitated a journey to the origins themselves, in search of those early recordings. That visit, inevitably, had ended with him inside a legendary studio alongside few of the nation’s finest musicians: Bakane Seck, Baaba Maal, Doudou Ndiaye Rose and Mbene Diatta Seck. An year later, Jeri-Jeri’s electrifying live show, which debuted at Wax Treatment in the May of 2012, lit up half of Europe – from Milan to Düsseldorf – to end up at the Fuji Rock festival this June. Ancient melodies of the future – and a frenetic sabar drum at the center of it.
With 800% Ndagga, Ernestus has compiled all the singles (and b-sides) in the 5-part series, into one salivating package. As with the original 12″s, “Xale” is a clear highlight, Diatta Seck’s godly voice taking control of the forward propel of the marimba, to guide the storyline to where she intends. But each track is a triumph of its own: “Gawlo” and “Bamba” bring to light one of the secret weapons underscoring most of the tracks here – Baaba Maal’s infectious, perfectly tempered guitar play. “Ndeye Gueye” finds Ndiaye Rose’s sabar locked in a patient dual with the strings, a dual that slowly escalates (via repetition) into a hypnotic swirl. “Mbeuguel Dafa Nekh” is the busiest track of them all, its tangential slices of melody drifting in and out, like a live re-imagining of Move D’s sublime Workshop 13, gliding you through the Nile at night.
On the flip, “Casamance” and “Sama Yaye” find a skeletal hook sliced into two different versions, with a fast-paced male-vocal’d centerpiece followed by a more somber take by Diatta Seck. The latter version speaks of the raw energy and space hidden in these tracks, and the skillful range possessed by these musicians to cut strikingly contrasting-textures from the same cloth. Finally, “Daguagne” concludes (rather aptly) an emotional and frenetic journey with a magnetic bassline from Thieno Starr. (In the meantime, Ndagga Versions brings together the instrumental versions of all these tracks, amplifying the deft subtleties hidden inside). Trivial as this may sound, perhaps this fact is a testimony to the strength and vitality of the music that’s present here: (to accompany the wax) it’s the first time in a decade we have bought a CD.