Omar Pène - As Hot As Ever After Thirty Years Paris 24/05/2005 -
Omar Pène, leader of the legendary Senegalese group Super Diamono, strikes out in a different direction on his new album Myamba (Faces / Discograph), experimenting with a new sound that should prove a big hit with international audiences.
No drums, no synthesisers! Just double bass, acoustic guitar, that familiar old bass strummed by Pape Dembel Diop and a spot of low-profile percussion thrumming away in the background. Omar Pène's new album is deliberately lean, mean and pared down – and a million miles away from the classic hits that have rolled off the record presses in Dakar! Pène's new album Myamba is so positively laid back, in fact, that listeners would be forgiven for forgetting that Omar Pène and his band – once dubbed "the young hooligans' orchestra" – were notorious for drumming up the wildest, craziest sounds in the roughest neighbourhood in Dakar. But that was thirty years ago and since then the leader of Super Diamono has considerably mellowed with age. Now, further mining the vein he dug on his last album 25 ans (released in 2001), Pène has his sights firmly set on conquering the international scene, which the anarchic spirit of Super Diamono ruled out for so long.
Although the spark of Super Diamono madness from the 70s and 80s has disappeared from Myamba, true connoisseurs of the group will not be completely confounded by Pène's lightened "acoustic" style. For a start, Pène's vocals are particularly brought to the fore on Myamba and prove to be every bit as warm, deep and expressive as they always were. And then, as long-term fans of Super Diamono will know, the group made their name exploring a wide variety of different sounds and styles, experimenting with everything from jazz, blues and reggae to 'mbalax' (the home-grown sound that has been all the rage in Senegal since the early 80s). Last, but definitely not least, Myamba (which features contributions from a number of non Super Diamono members such as Cameroon musician Jules Bikôkô) includes covers of ten of the 600(!) songs that have studded the group's career to date.
"Basically, we had to sit down and make a selection," says Pène matter-of-factly, "It's a bit like being a football coach with twenty players to choose from, but at the end of the day you can't play them all. You can only send eleven out there on the pitch. We spent a lot of time listening and re-listening to different songs and musing things over... And I have to admit," says Pène, as modest as ever, "I still don't know whether we chose the best songs in the end!"
The best known of the covers on Myamba is undoubtedly Soweto (now reworked as Mandela). The song, which originally featured on the 1987 album People, went down in music history as one of the Super Diamono classics from the era Pène fronted the group with fellow lead singers Mamadou Maïga and Moussa Ngom. "Africa will never forget those who fell in Soweto on account of their black skin," proclaim the lyrics, recalling the massacre perpetrated on the schoolchildren of Soweto by the apartheid regime in 1976. Pène includes another touching musical tribute on Myamba, too, paying homage to the musician Baila Diagne. "Baila's my spiritual father," declares Pène, "He's the one responsible for the birth of Diamono, in fact. After all, we were living at his place and rehearsing at the time. Baila still takes a lot of interest in the group today, in fact. He's like our big brother, the one we go to for advice." Baila was the first to discover the vocal prowess of the future leader of Super Diamono back in the early 70s. The pair met by chance in the Dakar neighbourhood where Omar and his teenage crew had taken to hanging out of an evening, singing and beating out their first tentative rhythms on old oilcans. Impressed by Omar's flair and determination, Baila encouraged the youngsters to pursue a musical career and Omar eventually ended up abandoning the football pitch (his great passion of the time).
The other tracks on Myamba reflect a concern with the day-to-day problems of Senegalese life and tackle themes which Pène the committed singer-songwriter has developed all along such as the complications of relationships, polygamy and economic and social issues. "People don't live off the sweat off their brows no more/ The strong crush the weak (...) The worker's exploited, his rights are trampled / And he still can't make ends meet," sings Pène on Moudje. But the track on the album which Pène claims is "closest to his heart" is Liberté (Freedom). "It's a song about emigration," he says, "And that's something I'll keep on harping on about so long as people don't understand that their future's right here at home. People have to realise that it's difficult to exile yourself away from home, that when they move abroad they'll often be living under the harshest conditions imaginable and that they'll end up having to accept things they'd never dream of accepting back home. Someone has to get the message across to the nation's youth that their future lies here in Africa not elsewhere. But if we want those young people to stay in Africa then we have to give them the means to do so. And that's where the government decision makers come in – they have to assure young people of jobs and make sure they have access to decent lodgings and health care."
While Pène preaches social planning and forward thinking on his album, Super Diamono hit the road for an international tour, playing dates across the US, Canada and Europe throughout June and July. But, as always, the group retain a big place in their hearts for their Senegalese fans. Super Diamono's latest national release – the live recording of a mega-concert celebrating their 30th anniversary last December – will keep fans back home happy while they are away.