Youssou NDour: Out of and back into Africa
November 30, 2007
Youssou NDour not only has an enormous respect for the traditional music of his home country, Senegal, but views that music percussion-based, with lyrics focused on praise for the divine as the foundation for all the music he has made in a 30-year-career. NDour is descended, on his mothers side, from the griots, the West African class of singer-storytellers who are considered the repositories of an ancient oral culture. As a child, he heard his grandmother sing at births and weddings. NDour whose name is pronounced like the word endure has said that the power of his music comes from its being rooted in that style of community-based music-making. In a recent phone interview he elaborated, saying that when he started performing as a teenager in the capital city of Dakar, it was the crowd of tradition-loving listeners that drove him forward.What I feel was that everyone was involved in the music. I felt the background of the tradition, said NDour from his publicists office in New York City. The people who emphasized that tradition in the background, they get involved and give you a message.Taking equal control of his youthful creative mind was a desire to explore. Like many urban West Africans raised in the 70s, NDour was enthralled by the sounds of Cuba and wanted to incorporate those into his music. He was also witnessing what was going on with musicians closer to home: Nigerias Fela Kuti, whose Afrobeat combined James Brown-style funk with African rhythms, and Cameroons Manu Dibango, who added jazz elements to his native sounds.All these things were happening. These were the things in the environment, said the 48-year-old NDour, who makes his Aspen debut Monday, Dec. 3, appearing at Belly Up with his eight-piece Super Etoile de Dakar band. Among the most striking things were the keyboards and electric guitars, which were unknown in traditional Senegalese music. Traditional music played on modern instruments this is what I was trying to do.NDour succeeded in more than that. His fusion of electric instruments, old West African styles, Cuban rhythms and more helped invent a new form of music, known as mbalax. NDours early version of mbalax, played in his first groups, the Star Band and Etoile de Dakar, leaned heavily toward a Caribbean sound. In 1979 he formed his Super Etoile de Dakar, which featured a more African focus. The bands international profile was launched through contacts the Senegalese taxi drivers association had in France and Italy. (NDours father was an auto mechanic with connections to Dakars cabbies.) Since releasing his first album with the Super Etoile band, 1984s Bitim Rew, NDours star has been in a constant nova phase, continually increasing in intensity. The stack of honors he has accumulated can appear almost absurd. In 2000 the British magazine Folk Roots bestowed him with the honor of African Artist of the Century. Robert Christgau, of the Village Voice, called NDour the worlds greatest pop vocalist. NDour has collaborated with numerous noted musicians from around the world, none more advantageously than his work with Peter Gabriel; it is NDour whose voice gives the worldly flavor to Gabriels mega-hit, In Your Eyes.NDour was the only African artist to participate in 2005s Live 8 concerts to combat poverty; he appeared at three of the concerts in Paris, London and Cornwall. He appeared onscreen last year in Amazing Grace, featured as an African-British abolitionist in Michael Apteds well-reviewed film about the effort to end slavery in England. Most recently, NDour was one of two Africans included on Instant Karma, a two-CD tribute to John Lennon and a fundraiser for the Campaign to Save Darfur. His penetrating version of Jealous Guy closes the first disc.
NDours latest album, released in October, describes the exchange of musical sounds and cultures. Rokku Mi Rokka translates as give and take, his take on the process that has brought traditional African rhythms to the Caribbean; American jazz, funk and hip-hop back to Africa; and modern African sounds to the States in the form of bands such as New Yorks Antibalas.This album tried to bring the roots blues, reggae, soul, Cuban that happened a long time ago in Senegal, said NDour. What I believe is, when the slaves left Africa they took the music with them. This is why when you play reggae, I feel part of it. So the music left Africa and is coming back.On Rokku Mi Rokka, the music lands back in Africa with a heavy measure of the griot tradition. The lyrics, in the African fashion, are direct and insistent, addressing the land and the people. Often there is a clear moral tale to the song; Sportif is a reminder that in all contests, there are winners and losers, and both should show a gracious attitude. Pullo rdo is a straightforward narrative of the life of the shepherd (Hes with his herd / Whistling fine tunes). The album closes with Wake Up (Its Africa Calling), a duet with Swedish singer Neneh Cherry, with whom NDour recorded 1994s 7 Seconds, an international hit. It is the only song on the album that is mostly in English, and the reason is clear: Wake Up is specifically addressed to the rest of the world, a reminder that Africa has something to contribute to the planet.There is something vital and important in Rokku Mi Rokka. Like many African singers, NDour is more than a musician, but a spokesman for the people. (His list of honors also includes being named this year as one of Time magazines 100 Most Important People.) NDour says that is because music has a role beyond mere entertainment for Africans.A long time ago we were using music to deliver messages, to solve problems, he said. And these things are still used. We think music is still power. We can deliver a message faster than political words.
Though NDour contributed to the creation of mbalax and is considered the most prominent singer of the style, he has never seemed bound by whatever he did previously. Listen to his albums he has been making them at the rate of about one a year for more than two decades and it is hard to get a grip on just what mbalax is. NDours CDs can lean acoustic and mellow, or electric and jubilant, more toward African traditions or more toward Western pop.And then there is what might be his masterpiece. Egypt, from 2004, earned NDour his first Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album. This comes from a very different part of Africa; Egypt was NDours attempt to explain Sufisim, the Muslim sect to which he belongs, in a time when the Muslim religion was under severe attack. The album employed the Fathy Salama Orchestra, an Egyptian ensemble of string, wind and percussion instruments led by conductor and arranger Fathy Salamy. The album, co-produced by Salamy, is deeply religious; each song is a tribute to a Sufi saint or caliph.Perhaps not surprising, Egypt was disdained by many of the traditionalists whom NDour credits with helping him start his career.Back home, a lot of people didnt like the album, the concept, he said. But Im not doing music to convince people. Im doing music because of what I believe. Egypt was just something I was thinking about. They didnt understand it not because of the word, but because of the difference between Egypt and the other things I was doing.Since taking his music out of Africa, NDour has learned that his own aspirations only start with Senegalese music.When my music started to be out of Senegal, it was an education in what I was presenting, he said. I realized how my music was different than the others, and how I could extend my music. It gave me freedom to do what I wanted.Youssou NDour & the Super Etoile de Dakar perform Monday Dec. 3, at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org