Photograph by Youri Lenquette
Mbalax Won't Do It: Youssou N'Dour, who popularized West African mbalax, wants to educate audiences about many other musical forms as well.
Youssou N'Dour at The Rio
The Senegalese superstar heads to town with a slew of West African musical styles
By Andrew Gilbert
As the father of mbalax, Youssou N'Dour created West Africa's most popular musical style. Now the Senegalese superstar is looking to introduce the world to other sounds from his ethnically diverse nation.N'Dour, who performs at the Rio Theatre next Wednesday in a concert presented by UCSC's Arts & Lectures and Pulse Productions, fired his first salvo with 2004's Grammy-winning masterpiece Egypt (Nonesuch), an album celebrating the Sufi-influenced school of Islam that predominates in Senegal.
His latest album, Rokku Mi Rokka, which translates from Pulaar (also known as Fula) as "give and take," draws inspiration from Senegal's northern provinces, which border on Mauritania and Mali. The album is partly inspired by Bah Mody, a popular singer from the northern Tukulor people whom N'Dour invited into the studio to collaborate on many of the songs. While working with his old comrades from Super Etoile, the band with which he first became a transcendent force in African music in the late 1970s, he composed a series of songs based on the traditional Tukulor wango rhythm (though the album opens with a celebratory mbalax tune, "4-4-44").
"Doing the same thing for more than 20 years, the same music, it's going to be really tired," says N'Dour, 47, from the New York office of his label Nonesuch, shortly before the start of a 19-city North American tour. "I'm coming from a country where there's a lot of diversity of music. I feel a responsibility to bring other music from my country, not only the popular styles. I feel like an ambassador, bringing the music coming from the north and the south. This music is interesting more maybe than mbalax."
N'Dour's musical mission is to raise awareness of these styles both within Senegal and on the world stage. And as the album's title suggests, he wants to remind his audiences that Africa is the source for much of the world's popular music. "The music tries to tell people that the roots of blues and reggae and Latin music is from us," N'Dour says.
In many ways, he combined all those influences with various traditional styles of the Wolof people to create the jumping mbalax sound. American audiences first heard his Arabian-inflected wail on Peter Gabriel's 1985 hit "In Your Eyes" and experienced his charismatic performances in 1988 when he co-headlined Amnesty International's "Human Rights Now!" tour along side Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Tracy Chapman. A series of international hit records followed, including 1989's The Lion, 1994's The Guide and his 1995 trilingual dance floor anthem with hip-hop chanteuse Neneh Cherry, "7 Seconds." More recently, he made a memorable Hollywood debut in Amazing Grace, playing the freed slave Olaudah Equiano in last year's biopic about English abolitionist William Wilburforce.
Off stage, N'Dour has been a leading advocate for bringing the informational revolution to Africa as the driving force behind the Youth Network for Development, which includes the Joko Project, a nonprofit initiative to build Internet access centers and develop cultural content websites. After several years of successes and setbacks, N'Dour is planning to launch the Internet initiative's second phase next year.
"This project is doing really well," N'Dour says. "In the first part we learned a lot of things and there was often misunderstandings, with people thinking that Joko will bring money and jobs all the time. In 2008, we're going to do start Joko Renaissance, which will talk to people in Africa a lot about the Internet. This tour is a big opportunity for me to ask people who believe in Internet solidarity to help this new initiative. I do my best, but we need a lot of support from the West, for money, computers and technological support." As one of the first African pop stars to emerge in the '80s with a truly global following, he is well placed to spearhead the initiative. Like his music, which draws on and transforms traditional Senegalese musical forms, N'Dour envisions the Internet as a way to enhance traditional aspects of West African society.
"Eventually the Internet can replace what we in Africa call the council tree, the tree in the center of a village where people come to debate the affairs of the community," N'Dour says. "Already this is happening at some level. All the Africans in the diaspora in Europe and even America are starting to utilize the net for this purpose. But our project is designed to give that a push and expand it even further." Born in Dakar in 1959, N'Dour grew up in a family of musicians. His mother was a griot who taught him the basics of traditional Wolof music, such as tasso, a syncopated talking form akin to rap, and bakou, a traditional chant. He started performing publicly as a child at neighborhood gatherings, honing an intense, smoldering style that seemed far advanced for his age.
By his midteens N'Dour was performing with Senegal's leading pop group, the Star Band de Dakar, and had been dubbed "Le Petit Price de Dakar." He made the move to Paris in the early '80s and recorded a series of albums including the mbalax classic Immigres. All the while he maintained close connections with Senegal, performing frequently in Dakar and opening a recording studio and a nightclub. His 10-member band Super Etoile boasts virtually the same personnel as when he founded it, and his music often extols traditional sectors of society, like his soaring tune "Beykat," an ode to people who work the land.
"My own extended family comes from the village," N'Dour says. "When I write a song like this, where I have injected a bit of political commentary, I do it because I want to help defend the farmers' interests. This song received a very positive reaction in the country."
Part of what makes N'Dour's music so fascinating is the way he anchors his songs in Senegalese reality while drawing from so many different musical influences. His music celebrates the liberating power of education, the dignity of work and the importance of respecting women while also describing the challenges of life in West Africa, like in his mournful, reggae-inflected "Mademba (The Electricity Is Out Again)."
"My music has been characterized by a spirit of traveling, of journey," N'Dour says. "I've found out that the further I go from my origins, the more I find myself coming back to them for inspiration. What I'm doing right now seems to me to be the summing up of where I've been and where I come from."
YOUSSOU N'DOUR performs Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25-$30; 831.459.2159 or www.santacruztickets.com.
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