With Ndagga Rhythm Force, the Berlin luminary continues a decades-long journey that began with Rhythm & Sound. Andy Beta checks in with one of electronic music's most brilliant innovators.
The rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), which the New York Review Of Books summarized as a party whose platform is built in part on ideas such as, "It may be necessary to shoot at migrants trying to enter the country illegally," presents a frightening return of a particular train of thought not heard in public discourse in Germany for over 80 years. "As ugly as the trend is," Ernestus says, "I'm more worried about the trend in some other countries than I am about the situation in Germany specifically right now. I hope history doesn't prove me an idiot, these days things are changing faster than one can grasp. We'll see how much worse it will get before it gets better. I do believe a lot of the votes for Trump, Brexit, so-called AfD just express discontent with big picture politics—or the system—being presented as having no other alternative."
Following up with him a few weeks later, there is profound disappointment to be had in the United States and throughout the western world. Ernestus is succinct in his email response back to me, referencing "the old Chinese curse." Which is to say: "May you live in interesting times."
It won't be the first time Ernestus lived through such times. A month after the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989, he opened Hard Wax on the ground floor of a building off Reichenberger Straße. It became ground zero for the techno revolution roiling through the continent, a nexus on the crucial Berlin-Detroit axis. But while he was an indispensable part of the sale and distribution of electronic music, it's as a producer that Ernestus's legendary status was cemented. Working together with Moritz Von Oswald, he was responsible for some of the most influential and still astonishing techno of the past quarter century. Whether it was as Maurizio, Cyrus, Phylyps, Quadrant, Basic Channel or Rhythm & Sound, Von Oswald and Ernestus calibrated minimal techno for generations to come. Over time the duo came to perceive dub as a means of transubstantiation. Their Rhythm & Sound project remains the most profound iteration of their partnership, plumbing into Jamaican roots music with a monk-like fervor. But after 2005's See Mi Yah, the duo parted ways. They haven't collaborated on a project together in over 11 years.
"Some things just have their time," Ernestus says. "I didn't want to just continue with what I had done in the collaboration." It was time, he says, to focus on Hard Wax and build a "no-compromise" studio.
In 2007, while performing at a Danish street festival with Paul St. Hilaire, Ernestus happened upon a Gambian DJ team spinning mbalax, a type of music that originated in Senegal during the 1970s. "I heard the rhythms for about two hours and was hooked right away," he says. In Wolof, "mbalax" simply translates as "rhythm" (most pronunciations sound like "mm-ballast," or "bala"), but its rhythm and roots are anything but simple. Like most modern forms of African music, it's an amalgam of ancient tribal forms and sounds that wafted in from other regions, mingling in such a way as to sound both current and centuries old. There are strands of American blues, soul, Cuban son and Latin salsa, but the rhythms are conveyed by the thundering sabar, a traditional drum played with one hand and one stick. Before the rise of telecommunications and telegraph wires, sabar drums were used to communicate between villages, as its patterns could be gleaned upwards of 15 kilometers off. Place them on a stage and each drum hit sends a physical shockwave through the audience.
"Mbalax is a cosmopolitan, city-life kinda music," said Brian Shimkovitz, Fulbright scholar-turned-Awesome Tapes From Africa label boss. "To me, even the early recordings sound flashy and exciting. It melds music from abroad with things from home—sabar drums, Wolof language, and melismatic vocals—in an urban way, very colorful, with asymmetrical percussive stabs that are matched and mimicked by the band's dancers. It is the popular music by and of Dakar. I never imagined it would get popular among techno fans, though."
Senegal's most famous musical exports—Youssou N'Dour, Thione Seck, Omar Pène et Super Diamono, Viviane N'Dour—all have traditional Senegalese drums (the nder, the sabar and the talking tama drum) at their root. But these rhythms often take a back seat to the singer, band and synthesizers.
"I come from listening, being a record junkie, and I have always liked hearing something and imagining it differently," Ernestus says. In encountering mbalax, his sensibilities gravitated towards the drums and their interlocking polyrhythms.
"I was hearing things that always interested me in any music, in terms of repetition and minimalism," he said. "Although minimalism here means something very different than minimalism in dub, because the way in which dub is minimalist, you could say mbalax is maximalist, because it's so dense rhythmically, there's so many layers of percussion. I don't want to become too analytical, but maybe the complexity that you have built right into the rhythms in mbalax is related to the complexity that you generate in dub by using delays and things."
At the time, Ernestus didn't envision himself doing anything more than obsessing over this sound and trying to track down as much mbalax as he could—not an easy task in Berlin. Even with YouTube, it was tough to keep up with the different spellings and a general lack of information on the music and musicians. "I remember it felt so detached from anything I had worked with or what I would play, that for a long time I saw it not as a possible new area of work, but as a very personal favorite waste of time. It was the opposite of thinking this could be a new direction for my work. I was thinking of it in terms of actually something that holds me back from the musical work I 'should' be doing."
Ernestus began to take on remixes that allowed him to better interface with African music of all sorts. He remixed the likes of Tony Allen (as well as Allen's project with Damon Albarn, Rocket Juice & The Moon), Konono No.1, Shangaan Electro group BBC, Malian singer Ben Zabo and most recently, Nigerian brass band Obadikah. Reworking electronic music no longer felt vital for him.
"For remixing, I like to have some musical substance to work from, something you can really mess with and it's still there," he says. "I find many remixes disappointing in that they don't really engage with the material, just grabbing few samples and looping them. That can be so cheap, kind of sad actually, like a missed opportunity."
Skimming the surface, doing perfunctory work rather than diving deep and immersing oneself in an outside sound or culture—perhaps its Ernestus's way of avoiding these pitfalls that makes his work so essential. Each project presents an opportunity to fully fuse with a sound, rather than to simply dabble in it. Rhythm & Sound was not the first time electronic and roots music intermingled, but it remains the most sublime union of those two traditions. Rather than simply being two white boys from Germany drawing on those fathoms-deep bass tones, the project reached out to and put forth as the face of the project forgotten singers like Jennifer Lara, Cornell Campbell and The Chosen Brothers. The duo also established the Basic Replay imprint, reissuing lost dub and early digi-reggae cuts that would have otherwise been lost to time. It's work that Ernestus continues to do with Dug Out, another vital reissue label, which he runs with Honest Jon's co-owner Mark Ainley.
"Since he had done Rhythm & Sound in a thoughtful and inclusive way—and his interest and genuine enthusiasm for Senegalese music in general was clear—I knew his collaboration with these Senegalese musicians would be equitable and cool," says Shimkovitz. Still, Ernestus didn't know what to do with this thirst for knowledge except to travel to Gambia. In early 2011, with his flights already booked, he had a chance meeting with Abdoulaye Diack, a friend of Tikiman. Diack had lived in Germany for 20 years, but before then he'd been a dancer in the Senegalese town of Kaolack. He knew most of the musicians Ernestus was obsessing over. In an interview with Electronic Beats, Ernestus described the whirlwind trip that led to the recording sessions for 2013's Mark Ernestus Presents Jeri-Jeri - 800% Ndagga—"It did run smoothly in an African way," he said. Soon after that album, he began honing the next iteration of this sound: Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force.
Ernestus sought to further refine and expand upon the rhythms and textures that these players presented. "More important than the presence of actual sabar drums is each musician's understanding of sabar rhythms," he said. After two albums and tours on the festival circuit with these Senegalese players, Ernestus insists he's still not fully familiar with all the intricacies the drums present. "I wouldn't say I understand them," he said. "Certainly not in the same way as my drummers do, because that's a complete science in and of itself."
Similarly, while Ernestus pores over production, recording, engineering and mastering nuances, Ndagga Rhythm Force players have little interest in the recording process. Ahead of a recent weeklong tour, Ernestus had copies of their new CD, Yermande, as well as new T-shirts. The band members were more excited for the shirts than the CDs, in part because none of them own CD players. "Maybe I don't understand sabar rhythms, but I feel them," Ernestus explained. "And maybe in terms of the mix and the production, it's the other way around. Maybe they don't understand it, but they feel it."
Even without understanding a word of Wolof or knowing the drum-heavy splendors of mbalax, Yermande is easy to feel. Many of the Jeri-Jeri players remain—bassist Abdourakhmane Fall, guitarist Assane Ndoye Cisse, singer Mbene Diatta Seck and the formidable drum section of the Seck clan (Abou Salla Seck on talmbat, Bada Seck and Serigne Mamoune Seck on tungune and thiol, the talking drums of Modou Mbaye and Alioune Seck, as well as Mangone Ndiaye Dieng and Laye Lo on drum kit). The sound, though, is streamlined and more immediate than it was on the Jeri-Jeri recordings. The record ranges from the traditional "Ndiguel" to the thundering build of "Lamb Ji," which is about the most popular sport in Senegal: wrestling. And then there's the stunning title track, sinuous, fierce and defiant, with Diatta Seck incanting a line that translates as: "Stop prompting the witchdoctor to curse us / Leave people alone and let them go their own way / Take yours / leave ours to us."
Ndagga Rhythm Force is built on a crack team of Senegalese players and mbalax rhythms, but Ernestus admits it might not land for most music fans in Senegal. "It does matter to me if Mbene, Fatou and the guys in the group like it, and if they can identify with the result, but it doesn't particularly matter to me if there's an audience for it in Senegal," he says. "It sounds selfish, but I think in that sense, it's important to be selfish. Because as a producer you only have your own taste or judgment to rely on, and some music has to find its audience, wherever it may be. If you try to cater to an audience that's not really yours, it can only go wrong."
Ndagga Rhythm Force exists in a liminal space, not quite tethered to the land where it originates, but not in the European electronic music tradition either. At this moment in time, there's something profound in having Ernestus highlight a clutch of African musicians. As fear of immigrants and "the other" grows, is it especially important to continue a cultural exchange between a German producer and musicians from a predominantly Muslim African country?
"Of course, you may say we advocate open-mindedness and diversity," Ernestus says. "But if the lesson to learn from recent developments is that we live in bubbles more than we had thought, maybe it's a bit like 'preaching to the choir.' So, is it good enough? Perhaps not." But it is a step forward. And while Ndagga Rhythm Force has its roots in Ernestus's persistent musical curiosity, in the present climate it begins to take on a greater urgency.
"The fear of fascism and aggressive right wing movements in Europe is very real right now," Shimkovitz says. "I can't say whether Mark thinks of Ndagga as a kind of statement or reaction, but the visibility of their concerts and work in Europe could help in some small way toward making more space for minority artists in the mainstream concert field there, which lacks diversity in many areas. Just pushing Senegalese artists to the fore at some of the major festivals and venues around Europe might be one way of combating some of negativity in the air."
It's a fraught time in Germany, with recent losses suffered by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the CDU due in part to their immigration policy. In the past month, there's been a backpedal from Merkel, who's controversially proposed a partial ban on the burqa and the niqab in Germany, presumably an attempt to stem the rising tide from the right. So far, Ernestus says he hasn't had many encounters with open racism in traveling with Ndagga Rhythm Force, but he still has to stay aware of the situation of his band in his home country. "There are certain parts of Germany and even Berlin where I'd rather not have them walking around, especially not without accompaniment."
However subtly, Ernestus's career has always run against the trend of Eurocentrism. When he opened Hard Wax, the shop made a point of importing "black music," be it reggae, house or techno. Rather than work in isolation, his work has been vital by being open to collaboration and outside influences. Instead of operating from a state of purity, the music works best as a crossbreed. "I hope that I'm open for inspiration from anywhere," he said. "But one quality in music that interests me is transcending or having a relevance beyond the cultural context it derives from."
Ernestus's impulse to transcend his cultural surroundings has been there since the '90s, when he would travel to Detroit to build relationships with the techno community there, through his collaborations with Jamaican singers in Rhythm & Sound and on to his current Ndagga project. It was radical 20 years ago, and is even more crucial now, as xenophobia rears its head and notions of nationalism eat away at open democracies.
Ernestus is braced for what lies ahead. "We'll see how much worse it will get before it gets better," he says. "I just hope the damage will be containable." But in a way, he finds solace in the spirit of the Senegalese players he surrounds himself with. "The current group are not just great 'African musicians,' they are also crazy as hell and their lightheartedness is just contagious. I mean, who else would wink and wave to a group of Hells Angels at the other table in a cafeteria?," he says, recalling a moment on tour. It's just one way for Ernestus and Ndagga Rhythm Force to face the interesting times ahead.