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Fatteliku Live In Athens 1987’

October, 1987. An open-air amphitheatre cut into a mountain overlooking the twinkling sprawl of nighttime Athens. Thousands of people are going crazy for a young Senegalese singer they’d never heard of until moments before, when headline act Peter Gabriel walked onstage and introduced him.

“You are about to see a remarkable group of musicians, playing some of my favourite music,” declared Gabriel, whose epic So tour was drawing to a close after months on the road. “I ask you to give them a warm reception and a good listen: Youssou N’Dour et Le Super Etoile de Dakar!”

Then there he was, boyish in a peaked cap and baggy trousers, his jacket striped with red, green and gold – the colours of Rastafari, and of Sufi Islam’s Mouride Brotherhood. Of the pan-African tricolor used on the Senegalese flag.

Smiling as he clutched a cable microphone and danced to the riotous mbalax rhythms of the musicians who’d filed on before him: seasoned players on everything from horns, guitars and keyboards to the traditional sabar, djembe and tama talking drum, an instrument clamped under an armpit and made to holler with a stick.

N’Dour, who’d just turned 28, was already a big star in West Africa. His voice, curling out across the auditorium and over the Athens neighbourhoods below, showed why. High-pitched and melismatic, laced with power and emotion, it drew gasps of disbelief and just as swiftly, roars of approval.

“Athens was special,” says N’Dour now. “I was a big fan of Greece and its ancient monuments so everything felt very atmospheric, and by that point on the tour I’d learned so much from Peter in terms of sound and presentation. All the elements came together.”

Here, then, making its long-awaited debut as an audio release, is N’Dour’s opening set from that legendary Live in Athens show, as performed by an act on the cusp of Western stardom. An act that had transformed Senegalese music by playing traditional rhythms on electric instruments, fronted by a singer whose charisma, multi-talents and social conscience would eventually see him acknowledged as one of the most celebrated African musicians in history.

“I first saw Youssou play in 1980 in Paris, in a very hot tent, for a Senegalese audience,” remembers Gabriel. “I was setting up WOMAD and [UK-based Senegalese producer] George Acogny had been raving about this young Senegalese singer and taken me to see him."

“I was blown away by the music, the rhythms and one of the most extraordinary voices I’d ever heard, which I thought at the time was like liquid gold.”

That same year Gabriel and Acogny went to visit N’Dour at home in Dakar, the bustling capital of Senegal. “There was a lot of magical energy going around,” says Acogny, who would go on to produce N’Dour’s first international album, 1989’s The Lion. “Youssou came out to meet us on the porch of his mother’s house; I think she was wondering what we wanted from him.”

One of a long line of Tukulor griots, N’Dour had grown up singing alongside his mother at religious ceremonies before studying theatre as a young teenager. His astounding voice won him live slots on national radio and a boy-wonder status he exploited by hustling for gigs outside nightclubs like the Thiossane, the Copacabana-style nightclub he bought in his twenties and still owns today.

Aged 18, after stints fronting popular local outfits, Star Band and Etoile de Dakar, N’Dour formed Super Etoile de Dakar, throwing in Cuban influences, adding guitars and keyboards and reclaiming the Senegalese sabar. Writing songs with lyrics that touched on migration, African identity and the beliefs of the Mourides, the peace-loving branch of Islam to which he ascribes; about African figureheads such as the still imprisoned Nelson Mandela and the 16th century Senegalese philosopher and thinker, Kocc Barma Fall.

“Peter Gabriel came backstage after one of my early concerts in Paris, and told me that he loved my voice,” says N’Dour. “After he left I said to my staff, ‘I’ve heard he is a great English singer’.”

Gabriel became a frequent visitor to Dakar, and to the Thiossane. “It was a treat to see Youssou perform in this elegant, friendly and intense environment over which he had total control. The performances were wonderful and went on for hours; we would always finish with an early morning breakfast in the 24-hour patisserie.”

In 1985, in London to play a concert, N’Dour put in a call to Gabriel, who happened to be recording the album that would become So in a studio in Bath in England’s West Country. Invited to visit, N’Dour stayed for three days, laying down the stunning Wolof vocals that feature on the chorus of ‘In Your Eyes’, the emotional, smash-hit single that would boost both men’s international careers.

“I had some sketches of the melody,” says Gabriel, “but all I really needed to do was build a passionate piece of music and let Youssou run. His improvisations were brilliant, and better than anything I might have generated on my own.”

The worldwide success of the So album, and the ensuing So tour of Europe and America, confirmed Gabriel’s place in rock’s pantheon of greats. Backed by a lean yet loose band featuring David Rhodes on guitar and Manu Katché on drums, his shows were moving, uplifting, political and precedent-setting – as indeed, were those of his support act.

By the time the So tour hit Athens, N’Dour was an internationally acclaimed artist in his own right. Songs such as the fiercely upbeat crowd-pleaser ‘Ndobine’; ‘Sama Dom’, a jazzy, polyrhythmic ode to N’Dour’s young daughter; and the rollicking ‘Kocc Barma’, composed with Super Etoile musical director and bassist Habib Faye, brought entire stadiums to their feet.

Other songs emphasised the political seriousness underpinning his music: ‘Immigres’, with its chattering talking drum wielded by Assane Thiam and lyrics telling of the difficulties facing the African diaspora; ‘Nelson Mandela’, a call-and-response-style anthem praising - and raising awareness of - the incarcerated anti-apartheid activist.

“I wrote that song in 1985,” says N’Dour of the title track from his second album, Nelson Mandela; that same year he’d organised a concert in Senegal to demand Mandela’s freedom. “It was a big song that connected modern Senegal with what was going on in South Africa. That Peter Gabriel had written a protest song about Steve Biko [1980’s ‘Biko’], another great anti-apartheid activist, was a coincidence. Both these songs engaged with something really powerful.”

 “For too long Africa has been seen as a place where war, poverty and sad things happen,” he says. “It is also a place of beauty, poetry, colour and music.”

Gabriel reiterated this throughout the So tour when, draping a red, green and gold scarf around his neck, he’d bring back his opening act for two of three encores – including a joyful, emotional and energetic take on ‘In Your Eyes’.

N’Dour flashes a grin. “Everybody would always go crazy,” he says.

In 2014, Peter Gabriel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. 27 years after that remarkable So tour, the artist he invited to accompany him in the Induction Ceremony, to sing with him on ‘In Your Eyes’, was a Grammy-winning singer and composer, entrepreneur and elder statesman, African icon and international superstar.

Production Notes – Restoring the archive

In 2012, 25 years after the concert in Athens, work began to restore and remix the audio.

The original recording was made on two-inch analog tape. The fact that the tapes were over 20 years old meant it was necessary to bake each reel in a laboratory oven for three days at 60° Celsius. This stabilizes the glue that binds the oxide particles to the plastic backing and which over time can become unstable. Once they have been baked this ensures the magnetically oriented particles that represent the audio recording are not rubbed off as they pass over the tape heads.

Once transferred into the digital domain the audio was balanced in Pro Tools rather than spreading everything out on an analogue console, as it would have been done in 1987. As Ben Findlay, the restoration and mix engineer in 2012 says; “Mixing in Pro Tools can be a bit like trying to paint a room through a keyhole, but it has a massive advantage from a time point of view in that it allows you to go from one mix to another to another very quickly. This means that production time is reduced and that you are working from a known fixed point every time. One of the problems of mixing in the analogue domain is that if you do a mix and then you want to make adjustments to it, you have to reset all the effects so that they’re right, make sure the console settings are all exactly as they were when you left the mix the previous time. Although the mixing process that we engaged in on this project was not such a pleasant, tactile experience, it does give you a solid working point; every time you go back to the mix you know that’s exactly how it was left because it’s all existing in a computer.

One of the things that was an absolute joy was that the original recording was so beautifully executed, and the analogue characteristics of the recording, i.e. the subtle compression that happens with analogue recording, and actually the background noise that you get as well, has an impact on your listening experience is faithfully transferred into the digital recording. We set about preserving that characteristic as much as we could.

During the mixing process, one of the crucial things is to get your monitoring environment comfortable and understandable, so I would have a surround array that were Mackie loud speakers. Then for the stereos, I would have a small pair of Auratone speakers, which are horrible sounding and very limited in frequency response, but give you a sense of how the production is going to sound on television or on a small system. Then in Peter Gabriel’s studio, he has Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus speakers, the big ones; they sound huge, in fact they sound like a PA in many ways, like a really beautifully tuned PA system. I would use them for big, loud listening, to get a sense of what was going on truly with the bottom end, and that was very useful.”

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