Sometime in 1992, Iman went on a trip to Paris and returned home with a CD made by a friend of hers. She played the album for her new husband and suggested that he cover something from it. Aloft in the giddy state of early marriage, he happily agreed. So the most obscure cover of Bowie’s life began as a wedding gift.
Tahra Mint Hembara, the musician, was born in Néma, in southeast Mauritania, in 1959. Often described in Bowie literature as a “Mauritanian princess,” she was more accurately a hereditary griot, a member of Mauritania’s caste of poets and musicians (her aunt was a revered griot, Lekhdera Mint Ahmed Zeidane). Tahra, who was also strikingly beautiful, did some modeling in Europe, which is how she met Iman and how, one assumes, she got connected with Pathé Marconi EMI, who gave her a record contract.
Her first, and to my knowledge only, album on a Western label, Yamen Yamen, was produced by Michel Pascal and Martine Valmont. It was an album of, in the words of the Rough Guide to West Africa, “Mooro-Tech”: songs derived from the traditional modal system of Mauritania (a five-mode system in which a musician plays each mode via two different scales, often called “black” and “white”*) but which were interpreted by French musicians in state-of-the-art Parisian studios in 1988.
It wasn’t as odd a fusion as one would imagine, as Mauritanian music had been more receptive to outside influences than other traditional North African musics, reflecting its location (Mauritania is the large vestibule between the Western Saharan nations of Algeria and Morocco and the Western African nations of Senegal and Mali) and its population, a mix of Berbers and Arabs, Wolof and Soninke. At the same time Mauritanian griots kept to strict gender roles: men played the tidinit (a four-stringed lute) while women, including Tahra, played a harp variant called the ardin (you can see Tahra playing it here, in a concert earlier this year at the Institut Français de Mauritanie.)
For her album, Tahra wrote a haunting song called “T Beyby” that was sequenced as the LP closer. Built of sparse materials—Alain Caron’s fretless bass, Olivier Hutman’s keyboards and Christophe Pascal’s drum programming—“Beyby” was a vehicle for Tahra’s unique voice, which was as harsh as it was unearthly, seemingly existing outside of its song, an exile’s voice captured in an exquisite net of sound; her voice was also the sonic equivalent to her ardin, which plays a jabbing two-note ostinato in the track’s closing minute. The refrain, the hypnotic “den eden dani den edani,” seems like an ardin line reincarnated as words.**
Taken by the song and convinced it could be a possible single, Tahra’s producer Martine Valmont wrote an English lyric for “T Beyby,” renaming it “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” (an English syllabic near-equivalent to Tahra’s refrain) and radically altered the song’s mood. “T Beyby” was sung by a man who’s learned that the woman he loves has left her husband. “He rejoices and thanks God for the Arab proverb, ‘all things return to their source.’” Valmont’s translation, allegedly inspired by a friend who’d recently died, introduced obsession and fatalism into the song: a woman, trapped in a cycle of despair, begs her lover not to let her down yet again.
So Bowie had a palette of choices when covering the song. He could return to the original version’s sense of divine liberation or delve further into the obsessional qualities of the translation, and he could build on the Western/Arabic fusion of “The Wedding.” Unfortunately he did nothing of the sort, instead condemning the song to a fate of glossy schlock, the unwelcome return of the sound of Tonight at its immaculate nadir, with overbearing backing singers, a glittering wall of keyboards, tasteful guitar fills and an airless production that seemed intent on smothering any sense of mystery in the song.
Still, Bowie’s “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” would have been comfortably banal but for his vocal. For whatever reason, Bowie decided to sing the first verses in a cod-patois, some baffling attempt at a vague Jamaican or French-inspired accent (“steel I keep my lurve for youuu,” he begins) that hovers between his lower register and a croaking somnolent timbre. As though shamed by Lester Bowie’s fluttering beauty of a trumpet solo, by far the finest thing on the track, Bowie corrected course in the latter half of the song, lunging into his high register, riffing against the ghastly backing singers and impressively flailing away in an attempt to make the song seem like a Young Americans outtake. It was too late: the mix of a crass arrangement and a bewildering, schizophrenic vocal made “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” one of Bowie’s most disappointing covers.
Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. Planned as the third single from the record until the bankruptcy filing of Savage Records in late 1993. Bowie’s Indonesian vocal (which is preferable to the English one) was released on Indonesian pressings of the album and later included on the reissue of Black Tie White Noise.
* The “black” and “white” scales reportedly have no racial connotations; unfortunately I couldn’t find much information as to their differences. (Tahra and/or her producers translated “Don’t Let Me Down” into an A-flat tonality, with the song built of rich augmented chords—the verses and solo sway between an F minor eleventh and an Ab major seventh (vi11-Imaj7) while the chorus moves from dominant (E-flat) through Ab and Fm11 to close on a D-flat major 7th (V-I-vi11-IVmaj7). The presence, if muted, of “black and white” scales fit symbolically with Bowie’s own “Black Tie White Noise.”
** Though presumably Bowie had the lyric sheet, at times he seems to have learned the song phonetically, singing along to Tahra’s oddly-accented English. Hence he sings “you jog-jog in my memory” instead of “judge and jury in my memory,” among a few other clunkers.
Top: Mikael Colville-Anderson, “Kazghar Chicken Express,” Xinxiang Province, China, 1992.