Thursday, March 20, 2008

Youssou N'Dour

Senegal's Youssou N'Dour is, perhaps, the biggest name in world music. Now 40, his eerie voice, high and keening, has barely lost a step from when he burst on the scene in his homeland in 1979 with the hit "Xalis." But in the two decades since his audience, and to an extent his music has become global. The mbalax music he created at the beginning of the ‘80s, a juddering modern mix of local and Cuban rhythms, with dashes of reggae and Western pop for seasoning, made him Senegal's biggest star - a status he's kept ever since. In 1983, Peter Gabriel heard and loved N'Dour's song "Immigres," and began championing the African. The two toured and recorded together, and the exposure introduced N'Dour's music to an international audience.
The Lion (Virgin, 1989) marked him as someone to watch, but it was with Wommat - The Guide (Sony/Work, 1994), and its massive hit single, "7 Seconds," a duet with British singer/rapper Neneh Cherry, that N'Dour hit the big time. And for six years after that, although N'Dour continued to recorded at perform at home, releasing cassettes at home on his Jololi label, there's been international silence, at least until earlier this year. Then N'Dour released Joko - From Village to Town in Europe. While it contained some rootsy material, there was an emphasis on duets with Sting, Gabriel, and The Fugees' Wyclef Jean, who also contributed some remixes. That disc was never released in America. However, N'Dour now has a new label, Nonesuch, which has issued Joko (The Link). Shoter, and decidedly more African, it's ditched most of the duets and the remixes, and added two more very Senegalese tracks, "Miss" and the brand new, hardcore mbalax of "Mademba (The Electricity Is Out Again)." The tracks have also been re-sequenced to give a much richer feel to the listening experience. The son of a mechanic and a griot (a singing mix of oral historian, praise-giver, and adviser), N'Dour grew up in the rough Medina section of Dakar, Senegal's capital. Even when young, he sang locally, creating a sensation with his vocal ability, and by the time he was 16, he was one of the singers with the Star Band, one of Senegal's seminal groups. Leaving them, he joined Etoile de Dakar, before forming his own Super Etoile de Dakar, whose personnel has remained remarkably stable for almost two decades, with guitarist Jimi Mbaye and bassist Habib Faye at the core of the exciting sound. Like many Senegalese, N'Dour is follower of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the late Senegalese-Muslim saint who brought the Africanized Islam of Mouridism to the country, and spirituality has long been an important part of his music, along with the more traditional griotism; indeed, the two find a common home in the celebratory "Birima," for several years the centerpiece of N'Dour's live set. But as his horizons have expanded, so has his music.
While still based in Africa, it looks outward around the world, as on "This Dream," his collaboration with Peter Gabriel, and his work with artists from Paul Simon to jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. N'Dour keeps his roots strong, but the frontiers have come down. The magazine Folk Roots crowned him Africa's Artist of the Century, and African journal Nouvel Horizon named him Senegalese Person of the Century. His impact has been, and remains, undeniable, and, in spite of the long silence, his creativity hasn't dried up. And the wondrous voice remains as powerful as ever.

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