Icon: Youssou N’Dour

Keith Harris

By Keith Harris

on 09.09.11 in Icons

Your first exposure to Youssou N’Dour’s soaring tenor keen likely came on the coda to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” In the late ’80s, with the assistance and encouragement of Gabriel and other respectable liberal rockers, N’Dour sought to cross over to Western audiences by adapting Senegalese mbalax to contemporary synth-rock settings. Unfortunately, that short period of N’Dour’s career still defines Senegal’s greatest musician to the ears of many Western listeners.

But prior to his crossover bid, N’Dour virtually invented modern West African pop – if not the concept of “world music” – with his band Étoile de Dakar. He later returned to Dakar in the late ’90s to build his own studio and redefine the idea of “crossover.” No longer did he adjust his sound to entice Western audiences; instead, he allowed curious First Worlders to listen in as he sang to a world broader than his high-profile fans could have ever hoped to reach.

The Beginning

Like Elvis's Sun Sessions or the earliest rap 12-inches, these 23 cuts document the rough and tumble forging of a new sound. Its creators called it mbalax, which means simply "rhythm" in Wolof, the native Senegalese language in which singers Youssou N'Dour, El Hadji Faye, Eric M'Backe N'Doye and Mar Seck sparred, adapting the declamations of Senegal's griot praise singers to a clamorous mix of modern and traditional music. Psychedelic guitar distended and Senegalese tama hand drums disrupted the Afro-Cuban rhythms with which older groups like Orchestra Baobab had previously dominated Dakar nightclubs.

The mellow "Jalo" knocked out U.K. listeners when it later surfaced on Island's 1981 compilation Sound D'Afrique. But the definitive Étoile track is "Thiely," which begins with a minor-key arpeggio and a liquid lead, provided by guitarists Jimi Mbaye and Tolou Badou N'Diaye, and continues as Rane Dallo's saxophone restates a melody of middle-eastern provenance. Then, during the final minute, the players — guitars, horns, drums and singers — race one another to the climax.

Étoile de Dakar recorded six groundbreaking cassettes in three years, before N'Dour left, along with three other members, to form Super Étoile. The five of these recordings that Stern's Music made available are all worth investigating, particularly the earliest, Absa Gueye, recorded in an empty nightclub. But taken as a whole, on Once Upon a Time in Senegal, you can hear not just the birth of mbalax, or even of modern Senegalese pop, but the birth of Youssou N'Dour.

The Crossover Years

N'Dour recorded his international debut in Paris in 1984, but these four cuts (slightly remixed) didn't reach the U.S. until four years later. By then he'd sung on So and drummed on Graceland, embarked on the Amnesty International tour with Springsteen, U2, Gabriel and Sting, and released his stiff, tame U.S. debut, Nelson Mandela. (Its cover of the Spinners' "The Rubberband Man" could well define world-music crossover gone wrong.) On the title track, N'Dour's new band Super Étoile show what they could do when they stretched out, while its rallying cry to his displaced brothers and sisters reveals his ambitions as a pan-African spokesman.

The Lion

Youssou N'Dour

With soundtrack producer and Peter Gabriel pal George Acogny behind the boards, N'Dour tailored his sound for the enlightened Boomer: This is stately-yet-polyrhythmic rock, maybe a little too comfortable with its significance and a little too uncomfortable with its synthesizers. But The Lion isn't as schlocky as that description suggests — even David Sancious's slick sax is a step up from David Sanborn (let alone Kenny G). Nor as pompous; the title track is a rousing fight song for Senegal's football team. Still, he's not afraid to be sentimental or grand: "Shaking the Tree," a duet with Gabriel and the first of N'Dour's many sympathetic songs toward women, floats the progressive sentiment: "Do not follow your heart/ Know your destiny."


Youssou N'Dour

Set is N'Dour's first great solo album for one simple reason: He figured how to integrate synthesizers into mbalax. Typically they hover melodically in the higher registers here, fluctuating tonally between flute and calliope. On "Sabar" he sings in unison with them, on "Medina," a keyboard bed allows playful saxophone to spring into an upward tumble, and on the title anthem, choppy synths mow though the beat from underneath.

Not that the synths carry Set on their own. Ornate horns, frenetic tabas and booming trap drums muscle their way into the mix, while "Xale" makes room for an elegant string quartet. Compact song structures — "Fenene" is the only cut to break the five-minute mark — add to the tumultuous density of the arrangements. But if Étoile de Dakar was an ensemble of competing equals, Super Étoile is a backup band whose disciplined members contribute inspired moments to an overall pattern. The few English lyrics here, such as the exhortation to "try to be strong" on "Miyoko," might arouse concerns about what uplifting vagueness N'Dour preaches about elsewhere in Wolof; righteous songs like "Toxiques," which calls upon poor nations to refuse the toxic waste the first world foists upon them, put those fears to rest.

Eyes Open

Youssou N'Dour

N'Dour's reliance on call-and-response, on vocal interjections echoed by horns or synth or tama breaks, flirts with cliché. And he's not above enlisting corny sound effects to make his point: The opener, "New Africa," begins with a beeping alarm and ends with a jet takeoff. But his delivery is so authoritative, his arrangements so dynamic, that these songs convey the hortatory vigor that he intends. Eyes Open lacks Set's exhilarating sense of an artist's ideas finally coalescing, but compensates with the reassuring confidence of an artist hitting a groove he sounds capable of riding for years.

The Guide (Wommat)

Youssou N'Dour

Or, you know, not. N'Dour's first album recorded entirely in Senegal is also his clumsiest. His idea of Western taste had fallen disastrously behind — surely no one thought an early Dylan cover ("Chimes of Freedom"), a slick sax solo (Branford Marsalis this time) or a Neneh Cherry duet (the melodramatic "Seven Seconds") were necessary pop accommodations in 1994, raising the troubling thought that maybe N'Dour genuinely loved this schlock. His voice remained a wonder, and the simplicity of his lyrical conceits could be thrilling, as when he lists various African countries' dates of independence on "How You Are." But mostly The Guide (Wommat) showcases world music's pop ambitions dead-ending.

Back to Africa

Joko: The Link

Youssou N'Dour

Following The Guide, N'Dour set aside his grand crossover ambitions and returned to Dakar. Here, he constructed a state-of-the-art recording complex, Xippi Studios, and recorded the strongest music of his solo career. After a series of Senegal-only releases, he reintroduced himself to a global audience with Joko (The Link).

On the opening track, "Wiri-Wiri," village noises burble and tamas palpitate before the snap of a drum machine reminds you that this ain't folk music. "She Doesn't Need to Fall" and "Miss" are worthy additions to N'Dour's corpus of feminist compositions; his own charmingly awkward delivery of English lyrics on "My Hope Is in You" works better than Peter Gabriel incanting the title of "This Dream." Best of all is "Birima," in which guitars both brittle and bubbling bear the prettiest tune of N'Dour's career upward into a chorus illuminated by a glorious synthesizer sunrise.

Nothing's in Vain

Youssou N'Dour

The backup here is mostly acoustic — the kora (harp), the xalam (lute), the riti (one-string violin) — though producer Jean-Phillippe Rykiel lends subtle electronic touches. Aging Western musicians cut these "return to roots" discs all the time. But where those coots usually unplug because they can't keep up the kids' pace, the 42-year-old N'Dour was out to hold his own with a budding movement of youthful neo-traditionalists then sweeping West Africa.

Nothing's in Vain cultivates a Gallic feel — N'Dour tackles a chanson (complete with accordion) and duets with French pop star Pascal Obispo — and a romantic one as well, with four song titles mentioning love. He kept one ear still cocked toward what was happening in Europe, then. But where in the '80s N'Dour consciously reached westward with his music, he now folded foreign music into his own homegrown style.

He Is the World


Youssou N'Dour

In 2001, N'Dour traveled to Cairo to record an album of religious-themed music with the 14-piece Fathy Salama Orchestra. This project was strikingly ambitious and idiosyncratic — an international pop star celebrating West Africa's Sufi Muslim sects in the Arab world's most cosmopolitan city. N'Dour and Nonesuch shelved the project after September 11; upon its release three years later, this polyphonic exploration of Islamic culture was even more resonant.

Egypt showcases N'Dour in high griot mode. He begins with the general incantation "Allah," proceeds to praise various Sufi holy men, and closes with a beautiful ode to the city sacred to N'Dour's own Mourde sect, "Touba — Daru Salaam." To hear the reeds, strings, and flutes of urban North Africa accentuate the muezzin-like edge of N'Dour's voice as it soars in tandem, the kora's earthy contrast with the elegant oud, and the intersecting crosscurrents of North and West African percussion, is to eavesdrop on a conversation between cultures whose nuances we can barely grasp from this distance. But though primarily directed to the Islamic world, Egypt had a message for the rest of us too: Not all Muslims are fundamentalist or even Arab, and not all humanists are Western or even secular.

Rokku Mi Rokka

Youssou N'Dour

Though less deliberately international in its ambitions than Egypt, Rokku Mi Rokka is hardly provincial. The cosmopolitan N'Dour looks past Dakar's city limits to the north, to the West African deserts, all the way to Mali itself. A reunited Super Étoile provides the musical backbone, but the music stretches beyond mbalax to acknowledge that style's Afro-Cuban roots (Orchestra Baobab's Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis sing on "Xel") and affinities with Malian blues, as longtime Ali Farka Touré sideman Bassekou Kouyate adds ngoni to five tracks. N'Dour's lyrical scope also broadens over the course of the album, which kicks off with "4-4-44," a celebration of Senegalese independence, encourages geographical and mental growth with titles that translate as "Travel" and "Think," and concludes by addressing the world on "Wake Up (It's Africa Calling)," another duet with Neneh Cherry, who sounds right at home this time.

Dakar - Kingston

Youssou N'Dour

Reggae is the lingua franca of the African diaspora, so it was maybe inevitable that the globally minded N'Dour would eventually try speaking it. He recorded these 14 tracks at Tuff Gong in Jamaica, with the Wailers' Tyrone Downie producing and renowned reggae sideman Earl Chinna Smith handling the guitar work. Nor do the album's ties to Jamaican musical tradition end there: Morgan Heritage, a group comprising the children of reggae star Denroy Morgan, guest on "Don't Walk Away."

N'Dour has long seemed to covet Bob Marley's mantle as musical prophet to African emigrants worldwide, and Dakar-Kingston lays his cards on the table. The opener, "Marley," is a praise song with awkward English lyrics that trail off into a list of song titles, on which the great dub poet Mutabaruka handily upstages the star; the finale is a version of Bob's "Redemption Song." But the album works best when the music speaks for itself. The Caribbean roots of mbalax are supposedly Cuban, not Jamaican, but that familiar reggae downbeat driving older N'Dour tracks like "Medina" and "Bamba" re-contextualizes Senegalese music exactly as such a project should.

Music From The Motion Picture I Bring What I Love

Youssou N'Dour

The soundtrack to a documentary that every N'Dour fan should seek out immediately also capably supplements and sums up his recent career. The doc centers on the recording and release of Egypt, particularly on the controversy generated in Senegal by a secular musician addressing sacred topics. This compilation's two new compositions are both vocal showcases — the modest title track and "Yonnen (The Messenger)," a duet with "the people's griot" Moustafa Mbaye with which N'Dour hoped to overcome his countrymen's objections.

But this hodgepodge is mostly noteworthy for its six live tracks showcasing Super Étoile. The band, which can really cook in concert, is uncharacteristically subdued here, but until N'Dour gives us a full live album, we can make do with a gently acoustic take on "Birima" and a re-imagined "Immigres." I Bring What I Love is a decent introduction for newcomers. Then again, so was everything else N'Dour recorded over the past decade.