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.