Youssou N'Dour - Biography
By Robert Leaver
Youssou N’Dour is a Senegalese singer whose soaring tenor voice commands attention and enthralls legions of adoring fans the world over. His association with Peter Gabriel and the WOMAD festivals thrust him squarely into the international spotlight in the ‘80s. Subsequent tours with Amnesty International and success in Europe made him a bona fide pop star. For decades he has skillfully managed a two-track career, consistently releasing self-produced recordings at home in Africa every year while also making records with multi-national companies for international consumption. Singing mostly in Wolof, his mother tongue, but also in French and English, his compelling voice transcends language barriers. His integrity, musical prowess, and charismatic performances have earned him a spot on Time’s 2007 list of the Top 100 Artists & Entertainers.
Born in the bustling West African city of Dakar, Senegal, in October 1959, N’Dour began singing as a child in the Medina barrio. Although his mother had a griot heritage, linking the family to the caste of musicians and storytellers who are the keepers of traditional culture and history, he was raised in the distinctly cosmopolitan environment of Dakar. As a child his voice stood out when he sang at neighborhood religious festivals and ceremonies. He first took to the stage as a singer at the tender age of 12 and later began singing professionally as a teenager in the mid-seventies with Dakar’s popular Star Band. It was a time of great musical experimentation, during which Afro-Cuban elements mixed with indigenous African rhythms. Hendrix and Santana were influences on an eager generation of agile electric guitarists and the funk of James Brown inspired everyone to emulate the groove.
N'Dour's popularity rose with the Star Band, which later changed its name to Etoile de Dakar in 1978. Senegal’s popular music began to develop a more distinct sound during this time as Latin and rock elements were mixed into a percussive brew of folkloric rhythms. This new popular sound came to be called m’balax (which literally translates as “rhythmic accompaniment”) and with a dozen cassette releases under his belt, N’Dour was the emergent prince. By 1979 this young phenomenon had assumed leadership of the band that was renamed again-- Super Etoile de Dakar. Two excellent CD releases of material originally recorded in that productive year give us a sense of their tremendous energy-- Thiapatiholy (Sterns) and Absa Gueye (Discafrique). The latter contains the tracks “Esta China” and “Tu Veras,” memorable for their Cuban-esque sound and N’Dour’s pidgin Spanish vocals. Having secured a steady fan base in Dakar, N’Dour set his sights on Europe and began performing in France and Italy in the early ‘80s with the help of the international brotherhood of Senegalese taxi drivers.
Releasing a couple of full-length cassettes a year in Senegal, and licensing an occasional recording for LP release in France, N’Dour continued to make inroads into Europe, attracting the attention of world music aficionados. In 1984, with the release of Immigres, he unleashed an album that would become the unofficial anthem for expatriate Senegalese. An irresistible combination of driving beat and majestic melody underscores N’Dour’s voice as it soars, delicately reminding his compatriots to remember their home, emphatically beckoning them back. The French LP release of Immigres (1984) and its subsequent release by Earthworks/Virgin in 1988 have enjoyed continual catalogue sales, making its commercial success commensurate with its cultural significance.
He asserted his social conscience with Nelson Mandela (1985 Celluloid), including a title track that affirmed West Africa’s solidarity with the iconic South African leader who would remain in prison until 1990. The same release also featured a fun cover version of the Spinners “The Rubberband Man” which made its way onto Rough Trade’s Freerange sampler LP in 1985. The following year N’Dour made serious inroads into Western pop consciousness via his participation in Paul Simon’s blockbuster Graceland (1986 Warner) and his duet with Peter Gabriel on “In Your Eyes” from his So (1986 Geffen). In 1987 he participated in the Secret Policeman’s Third Ball benefit for Amnesty International at the London Palladium and can be heard on the Virgin live CD release singing “Biko” with Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed.
Peter Gabriel produced N’Dour’s The Lion (1989 Virgin), re-arranging and re-recording N’Dour’s songs for Western consumption, emphasizing melody and sacrificing some of the rhythmic complexity. Included is the English language song “Shakin’ The Tree,” a duet between N’Dour and Gabriel that enjoyed a modicum of commercial success. The same year, Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto released Beauty (1989 Virgin), featuring vocals by N’Dour on three cuts. N’Dour also participated on Gabriel’s Passion (1989 Virgin), a soundtrack for the film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988 Universal). Recognized and respected the world over, N’Dour finally got to make a record for international consumption that showcased his talents with Set (1990 Virgin). Sporting a sound that’s closer to the energy of his live performance, the album spawned a minor crossover hit with “Hey You!”
Inking a deal with Spike Lee’s 40 Acres & A Mule label, he released his next major label effort entitled Eyes Open (1992 Sony). The album topped the Billboard World Music charts based on its overall strength and cuts such as “Africa Remembers,” sung in English, and the funk-folklore fusion of “Yo Lé Lé (Fulani Groove).” Touring the United States the following year this writer had the opportunity to interview him in Santa Cruz, California. Easily accessible and humble for such an internationally known pop figure, N’Dour excitedly recounted his recent show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Performing on the same stage where so many great African-American artists, such as James Brown, had played was a moving experience, but he couldn’t help but express his dismay at performing to mostly white audiences on his tour. Although not complaining, he wondered why African-Americans didn’t show up at his shows in larger numbers.
Utilizing the fruits of his international success, N’Dour built his own state-of-the-art studio in Dakar, Studio Xippi, and established his own production company and recording label, Jololi. N’Dour speaks about the importance of maintaining control of his career and the means of production and is proud that he is able to employ several hundred people back home and contribute to the economy of Senegal. Although he could live anywhere in the world, he has chosen to stay in Dakar, where he remains firmly rooted in Senegalese culture and can help his friends, family, and fellow musicians.
A bona fide superstar in France, N’Dour composed an African opera that premiered in July 1993 at the hallowed Opéra Bastille in Paris. For his next multi-national venture he released The Guide (Wommat) (1994 Sony), a diverse, if uneven effort, that even included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” The album also yielded his biggest international hit in “7 Seconds,” an edgy, dance-friendly duet with Neneh Cherry. Another single from this release, “Undecided,” sprouted numerous dance mixes, including remixes by Deep Forest. N’Dour participated in Manu Dibango’s African all-star project Wakafrika (1994), singing the Afro-classic “Soul Makossa.” In 1996 he lent his voice to releases by fellow Senegalese artist Cheikh Lo, Italian singer Massimo di Cataldo, and Jamaican Judge Dredd.
In the late ‘90s he continued to release numerous live and studio recordings in Senegal including the excellent St-Louis (1997 Jololi). He appeared on recordings by Wyclef Jean, the French artists Axelle Red, Alan Stivell, and Alliance Ethnik, as well as with Canibus on the Bullworth soundtrack (1998 Interscope). As a testament to his international esteem he was commissioned, along with Axelle Red, to write “La Cour des Grands,” the anthem for the 1998 FIFA World Cup (of soccer). His next international release, Joko: The Link (2000 Elektra), was a diverse set of music including polished pop crossover tunes and some heady m’balax. Long time collaborator Peter Gabriel joins in a vocal duet on “This Dream.” Taking its name from that album, N’Dour started Project Joko, aimed at connecting expatriates with their homeland by opening Internet cafés. Never one to disappoint in live performance, Le Gran Bal a Bercy (2000 Jololi) captures the groove orientation of his stellar band. The pulsating rhythms are relentless and the prowess of ace guitarist Jimi Mbaye is given space while the expatriate African audience in Paris inspires N’Dour to vocal heights.
Coinciding with a trend toward more acoustic World music, N’Dour turned town the amps, ditched the horns (but not the electric keyboards), and brought in the majestic strings of the harp-like African kora for Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du réér) (2002 Nonesuch). Featuring lush harmonies, the sonic space showcases N’Dour’s vocal nuances in a neo-traditional paradigm perfectly suited for a mature audience. For his next international venture, N’Dour embarked on a bold musical embrace of classical Arabic music. N’Dour has been immersed in Islam since birth, albeit more cosmopolitan and less fundamental, and one could always hear the echo of the call of the muezzins in his voice. With a handful of his close musicians and the Egyptian Fathy Salama Orchestra, he explores the depth of Sufi Muslim tradition through the prism of Senegalese folklore in Egypt (2004 Nonesuch). Perhaps in response to the anti-Islamic sentiment rising in the West, N’Dour felt it imperative to show us the beauty of Africa’s Muslim community and its mystical music. Violins and oud play alongside the kora and a battery of West African percussion on this highly original synthesis of Afro-Arabic traditions. N’Dour picked up a well-deserved Grammy, his first, when Egypt won Best Contemporary World Music Album.
N’Dour returned to his rollicking m’balax base in Rokku Mi Rokka (2007 Nonesuch) which translates as “give and take.” Fast, fat grooves and infectious riffs abound in a sophisticated mélange of Afro-Pop. The album kicks off celebrating Senegal’s 44th anniversary of independence in “4-4-44” and ends with Neneh Cherry chiming in on “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling).” With boundless enthusiasm, N’Dour has used his awesome voice to construct a sturdy musical bridge that connects the deep folklore and rhythmic pop of his native Senegal to European and American popular music and spans the mythical divide between sub-Saharan African and Arabic North Africa. Throughout his long career, he has maintained constant integrity and consistently voiced his universal concern for social justice. His musical sophistication and mastery of production leave us with a vast catalogue of recorded material that will continue to inspire and delight fans worldwide for generations to come.