That this is the case is due in no small part to the Senegalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour. If James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business, N’Dour has certainly given the Godfather of Soul a run for his money. With more than 25 albums to his credit, as well as countless guest appearances on other artists’ platters, the 48-year-old has reached levels of popularity that would be the envy of many recording musicians.
On November 18, N’Dour’s train makes a stop in Kingston with a performance at the UPAC.
Popular music in Senegal has its roots in mbalax, a blend of the country’s traditional percussion and praise singing that combined with Afro-Cuban arrangements. This mix was updated with a dash of Senegalese dance rhythms, guitar and saxophone solos, and talking drum soliloquies.
Played by a generation of musicians steeped in the American rock and soul styles of Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, James Brown, and others, mbalax is both celebratory and raucously funky. The melting pot of the cosmopolitan capital of Dakar has served as the crucible for this music, and N’Dour has been at the forefront of introducing mbalax as a worldwide phenomenon as a bandleader, composer, and performer. He burst into the Western limelight through several high-profile guest appearances on records by Peter Gabriel, most notably their duet on the hit single “In Your Eyes.” The song was a watershed moment in world pop fusion.
N’Dour’s own band, the Super Etoile, certainly had hardscrabble beginnings, performing pirate gigs outside of Dakar’s nightclubs and relying on the benevolence of the Senegalese taxi drivers' fraternal association in France and a small group of supporters in England in order to launch its international career.
N’Dour’s distinctive tenor lends itself to storytelling, buttressed by his four-octave range. N’Dour increased his worldwide prominence through his involvement in the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour, on which he performed alongside such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, and Peter Gabriel. In 1988, he performed at Wembley Stadium at a birthday party concert for South African President Nelson Mandela.
Although N’Dour and the Super Etoile have spent the best part of two decades perfecting their distinctive blend of world-music crossover, his more recent work seems to be veering closer to the traditional sounds of West Africa.
On Egypt (Nonesuch, 2004), N’Dour delves more deeply into traditional Sufi spiritual music, employing the Fathy Salama Orchestra, a 14-piece traditional ensemble. In interviews, N’Dour has said that the music on Egypt expresses the tolerance inherent in Islam. When the record was released, N’Dour stated that “our
religion has nothing to do with violence, terrorism.” Egypt won N’Dour a Grammy and further cemented his spot in the pantheon of world music performers.
Youssou N’Dour will perform at the UPAC on November 18 at 7pm. (845) 339-6088; www.upac.org.