By any estimation, Thione Seck's Orientation is luscious. The album's scope is massive, taking in sounds and influences of Eastern music and marrying them with a Senegalese superstar.
For Thione Seck, the blend of Arabic, Indian, and African music on display here is a natural outgrowth of his own art. Seck, a griot of the Wolof people, grew up watching Indian Bollywood films in the theaters of Dakar. He was also raised a Mouride, a follower of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a Muslim mystic and Senegalese national hero. While trusted with the duty of transmitting Wolof heritage and wisdom to new generations, the exposure that Seck had to multicultural influences in Senegal was percolating throughout his music. Thione Seck practiced Indian singing and he listened to Arabic prayers; all the while, he was a member of the Star Band of Dakar, Orchestre Baobab, and Raam Dann, experimenting with Senegalese music.
Orientation is the project that takes Seck's music further than it has ever gone before. The album had its origins in the early 1990s, when Seck envisioned music that would involve contributions from Senegalese, Indian, and Arabic musicians. In 1999, Thione Seck brought some preliminary tracks to the French producer and arranger Francois Breant, who took Seck to record in studios in Paris, Cairo, and Madras. The tapes for Orientation were completed in November 2002, but as the sessions had taken place across three continents, bureaucratic red tape needed to be cut before the album could finally be released.
In the end, over forty musicians worked to bring Seck's project to fruition. The results are exciting, the songs supple and intoxicating. To say that repeated listening is required sounds clichéd, and yet hearing these cultures mesh is mesmerizing and demands the time. The Egyptian percussion on "Manmignoul (Ode to the colour black)" drives the song; Seck's voice floats over the rhythmic ocean gracefully, joined by an Arabic violin solo.
Some of the best moments are the Indian-inspired ones. The drone that sets the stage for "Ballago" segues into gorgeous orchestration. The Bollywood influence is also apparent on the male/female duet of "Assalo (Candle games)," which is hypnotic, as dense as the smoke of incense. "Djirim (Orphan)" is a gorgeous song, underpinned by woodwinds and marimbas, cinematic in telling the tale of the motherless child treated cruelly by his stepmother.
The backstory to Orientation is fascinating enough, but for an artist to live up to his ambition is quite another thing. Thione Seck's Orientation experiment successfully brings western African and Eastern musics together, creating a new music altogether. - Lee Blackstone