Senegalese singer, songwriter, and bandleader Youssou N'Dour (born 1959) is a leading proponent of World Music, combining traditional music from his homeland with Western popular culture, Cuban rhythms, and contemporary instrumentation.
N'Dour is among the most popular practitioners of a Senegalese form of music called mbalax, which features the heavy rhythms normally associated with the indigenous mbung mbung drum, kora harp, and balafon xylophone instead being performed by electric guitars and keyboards. Mbalax also employs the traditional Senegalese vocal methods of tassou and bakou; which, respectively, resemble Western rap and rhythm-and-blues vocal techniques. N'Dour helped pioneer mbalax in the 1970s with tremendous success in his homeland and brought the music to international popularity in the 1980s when he toured Europe and the United States as a solo performer and with such Western musical artists as Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen. His efforts to introduce mbalax music to international audiences is assisted by a stunning vocal ability that has been put to good effect on N'Dour's own recordings and on popular recordings by such artists as Gabriel and Harry Belafonte.
Born in Dakar, N'Dour was immersed in Senegal's cross-pollination of indigenous music with European traditions. Frequented by Portuguese explorers and French colonialists since the seventeenth-century because of its central location on the continent and its Atlantic Ocean coastline, Senegal became the base for French operations on the African continent in the nineteenth century. As a result, Dakar became a center of commerce that attracted different Central African cultures as well. For example, N'Dour's father was from the Serer culture, and his mother was from a culture known as the Tukulor. However, N'Dour has stressed that he is a Wolof, a national Senegalese culture arising from a language originated in Dakar, which embraces many of Senegal's varied traditional and popular cultural forms.
N'dour was the eldest of eight children. His father was a garage mechanic and his mother was a well-known traditional praise singer or griot. Griots inherit their historical songs and stories from a griot family member of the previous generation and then teach it to the griot of the following generation. Senegalese griots perform at religious ceremonies and family celebrations, combining the distinct vocal phrasings of the Wolof and other Senegalese languages with the singing style of Central African Islamic traditions. After her marriage, however, a female griot violated local customs, and she abandoned public performances.
N'Dour's voice filled the void left by his mother. He began singing at religious ceremonies such as traditional circumcisions, and word of his talent spread until he received an invitation to join the local band Diamono. When he was sixteen, he became one of the chief vocalists for Dakar's most popular band, the Star Band. Formed by Ibra Kasse, the Star Band achieved its popularity by adapting Cuban and Latin American songs into Wolof.
In 1977, N'Dour formed Etoile de Dakar, featuring many of the younger musicians from the Star Band. The music performed by Etoile de Dakar was a polyglot of griot and Wolof regionalism, Senegalese nationalism, Third World rhythms, and urban teenage bravado. Tremendously successful, Etoile de Dakar ended when co-founders El Hadji Faye and Badou Ndiaye left the band. N'Dour rebounded by forming Super Etoile de Dakar and rose to prominence as Senegal's most revered performer.
Much of the music performed by Super Etoile de Dakar displays the influence of N'Dour's adherence to the Mourides belief system. Mourides, one of several Senegalese Islamic groups, adhere to the teachings of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a nineteenth-century teacher of the Koran who encouraged his followers to spend their lives preparing for salvation in the afterlife rather than resorting to violence against economic, cultural, and military oppression perpetrated by their enemies. This salvation is attained by following the instructions of Mourides holy men, called marabouts. N'Dour's songs frequently contain spiritual messages that encourage listeners to obey the instructions of Mourides's marabouts.
While sometimes spiritual, mbalax music also is a highly energetic music that marries Cuban and Latin American styles, and, as John Cho explained: "Melismatic upper-register vocals of Islamic muezzins with the accompanying Arabic modalities were introduced, resulting in a fresh harmonic mix." Mbalax features such percussive instruments as sabars (bass drums), djembes (drums with goatskin heads), and tamas, also known as talking drums. Cho noted: "The rapid-fire dialog between the singer and the tama player is often the climax of a song. … Mbalax also spawned its own high-stepping, high-energy dance called the ventilateur, which raised a ruckus among the pious because of the provocative manner in which the women hiked their boubous and flashed their forbidden legs."
The emigration of African audiences to European capitals created a ready-made audience for N'Dour outside Senegal. N'Dour adapted his music to accommodate French, Fulani, Serer, and English languages for the European tours Super Etoile de Dakar conducted in the early 1980s to fulfill the demands of Africans living in London and Paris. The tours provided international exposure for N'Dour's voice and mbalax music, leading to several fortuitous events.
Performing in London in 1984, Super Etoile de Dakar was seen by former Genesis frontman and successful solo artist Peter Gabriel. Gabriel's interest in World Music was evidenced on his third solo album, released in 1981, which featured African polyrhythms on the song "Games without Frontiers" and a song about slain South African leader Stephen Biko. Gabriel's positive impression of Super Etoile de Dakar's London performance inspired him to travel to Senegal, where he convinced N'Dour to contribute vocals to the song "In Your Eyes" on the English performer's So release. Gabriel also contracted Super Etoile de Dakar as the support act on his world tour. The song, "In Your Eyes," became a huge success for Gabriel after its inclusion on the soundtrack for a pivotal romantic scene in the Cameron Crowe film Say Anything, exposing N'Dour's voice and singing style to international audiences.
Another musical celebrity seeking to reinvigorate his creative impetus was American singer and songwriter Paul Simon. Simon immersed himself in the various musics of Africa while writing and recording the songs for his album Graceland. Among the artists Simon collaborated with on the album and subsequent tour were Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and N'Dour. Graceland was the most successful album of new material in Simon's solo career, furthering international recognition for N'Dour.
Human Rights Advocate
The exposure granted N'Dour and Super Etoiles de Dakar led to an invitation to participate in a 1986 worldwide tour of international artists commemorating South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela's release after twenty-five years. That same year, he wrote and recorded the song "Nelson Mandela." In 1988, he headlined the Amnesty International tour with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman. "Sometimes I feel like a missionary," he told a BBC reporter. "I have a mission to develop something, to bring people together, bring things together, to make things happen at home." In 1990, he contributed a song to the video music project Viva Mandela and performed at a concert in Mandela's honor at London's Wembley Arena.
N'Dour's financial success has enabled him to assist his Senegalese countrypeople. His ownership of a newspaper, a recording studio, a record label, a nightclub, and a radio station allows him to provide employment opportunities. "All these things happening now—my studio, my label, my club, or my radio station—is happening because I'm already a musician," he told the BBC. "My newspaper is not my newspaper. It's just a kind of help, to solve the employment problem and to give the journalists the chance to do what they really want to do."
N'Dour's humanitarian concerns led to his naming as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the 1990s. In 2000, he was named Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Organisation.
International Recording Star
Although N'Dour was an established recording star in Senegal, it was not until the late 1980s that he began releasing music on an international label. Released in 1989, The Lion, features the collaborative single "Shaking the Tree" with Peter Gabriel. The Set, released in 1991, furthered N'Dour's reputation as an artist with international appeal. Brian Cullman noted: "If any third-world performer has a real shot at the sort of universal popularity last enjoyed by Bob Marley, it's Youssou, a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it."
N'Dour received two Grammy Award nominations and sales of more than six-hundred-thousand for his 1994 album, The Guide, which includes guests Branford Marsalis and Neneh Cherry. His recording of "Seven Seconds," a duet with Cherry, sold more than one million copies and was named the number one song of 1994 at the MTV Awards Europe. In 1998, he wrote the official anthem of the soccer World Cup finals, "France '98," which he also performed with Belgian singer Axelle Red.
N'Dour took a hiatus from recording for five years before releasing Joko: From Village to Town in 2000. The album contains song collaborations with Sting and Peter Gabriel as well as several songs co-produced by Wyclef Jean that introduce American hip-hop elements to N'Dour's mbalax. "I try to bring things out in the modern way and in the urban way and musically I create a lot of connections," N'Dour said.
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