About Youssou N’Dour
Today’s popular music in Senegal, known in the Wolof language as mbalax, developed as a blend of the country’s traditional griot percussion and praise-singing with the Afro-Cuban arrangements and flavors which made the return trip from the Caribbean to West Africa in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and have flourished in West Africa ever since. Beginning in the mid-1970s the resulting mix was modernized with a gloss of more complex indigenous Senegalese dance rhythms, roomy and melodic guitar and saxophone solos, chattering talking-drum soliloquies and, on occasion, Sufi-inspired Muslim religious chant. This created a new music which was at turns nostalgic, restrained and stately, or celebratory, explosively syncopated and indescribably funky. Younger Senegalese musicians steeped in Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, James Brown, and the whole range of American jazz, soul music and rock which Senegal’s cosmopolitan capital, Dakar, had enthusiastically absorbed, were rediscovering their heritage and seeking out traditional performers, particularly singers and talking-drummers, to join their bands. (The griots – musicians, praise-singers and storyteller-historians – comprise a distinct hereditary caste in Wolof society and throughout West Africa.) As it emerged from this period of fruitful musical turbulence, mbalax would eventually find in Youssou N’Dour the performer who has had more to do with its shaping than any other individual.
Born in Dakar in 1959, N’Dour is a singer endowed with remarkable range and poise, and, as a composer, bandleader and producer, with a prodigious musical intelligence. The New York Times recently described his voice as an arresting tenor, a supple weapon deployed with prophetic authority. N’Dour absorbs the entire Senegalese musical spectrum in his work, often filtering this through the lens of genre-defying rock or pop music from outside Senegalese culture.
Named “African Artist of the Century” by the English publication fRoots at the threshold of the year 2000, N’Dour has made mbalax famous throughout the world during more than twenty years of recording and touring outside of Senegal with his band, The Super Etoile. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, dean of American rock critics, has flatly called N’Dour the world’s greatest pop vocalist and finds him the one African moving inexorably toward the world-pop fusion everyone else theorizes about.
Peter Gabriel, whose duet with N’Dour on a song called In Your Eyes on Gabriel’s album SO (Virgin/Geffen 1985) defined a truly important moment in the history of rock, has proclaimed N’Dour, as a singer, simply one of the best alive.
N’Dour solidified his leadership of The Super Etoile by 1979, having retained the essential personnel from earlier incarnations of the group, and he soon thereafter launched an international career with the help of a Senegalese taxi drivers’ fraternal association in France and a small circle of supporters in England. The beginnings in Dakar had been more inauspicious. As a willowy teenager, N’Dour had to resort to hustling pirate gigs in the parking lots outside certain of the city’s dance clubs to which he and his bandmates had uneasy or no access, his distinctive voice eventually earning him a reputation as a boy wonder and the occasional live amateur-hour slot on the National Radio. As early as age twelve, N’Dour had also been performing at neighborhood religious-ceremonial occasions in the hard-bitten Medina section of the city where he grew up as the first-born child of a pious auto mechanic, Elimane N’Dour, and his wife, Ndèye Sokhna Mboup, herself of griot origin and an occasional performer in the ceremonies of the Medina neighborhoods.
Today, N’Dour and The Super Etoile, acknowledged as Africa’s most popular live band on a worldwide scale, continue to play challenging Senegalese roots music with what The Los Angeles Times says is a joyous precision. Responding to the introspective side of the group’s recording career, which has included such critically-acclaimed major-label albums as SET (Virgin 1990), EYES OPEN (Sony Music 1992) and THE GUIDE (Sony Music 1994), and JOKO (THE LINK) (Nonesuch 2000) as well as the parallel release of dozens of local productions in Senegal, The Guardian (London) has called their music the finest example yet of the meeting of African and Western music: wholesome, urgent and thoughtful.
Notwithstanding his international career, Youssou N’Dour’s rootedness in Senegalese music and storytelling remains the hallmark of his artistic personality. At once daring innovator and staunch protector of mbalax’s unique Dakar overgroove, N’Dour manages to maintain a sound which is both characteristically Senegalese and outward-looking, a synthesis of musical languages unmistakably nourished by the musical soil of his homeland. On the foundation of this highly personal sound, N’Dour remains a revered figure in his country and in the ever-growing worldwide Senegalese diaspora. N’Dour continues to make his home in Dakar, but in Paris and New York once each year his Great African Ball, a dance party in the Senegalese style, features the kind of unhinged performances typical of the Dakar nightclubs. In this annual event N’Dour’s African immigrant patrons in Paris and New York become, for one night in each city, his co-stars, and their celebratory verve finds expression in an extraordinary collective spectacle.
Youssou NDours NOTHING’S IN VAIN (COONO DU RÉÉR)(Nonesuch 2002)was the first album NDour made directly for Nonesuch, the label having released JOKO (THE LINK) under license. This maiden Nonesuch album purposefully continued the essential ambition of NDours career to nurture a flowering of the musical traditions of his native Senegal within an envelope of modernist pop idioms that defy all borders.
Critics and fans have long appreciated NDours alacrity in weaving disparate strands of Senegalese and other world musics into an infectiously uplifting personal sound. With NOTHING’S IN VAIN (COONO DU RÉÉR), NDour made more liberal use of traditional acoustic instruments such as the twenty-one-stringed kora (West African folk harp), the five-stringed xalam (Senegalese lute) or the single-stringed riti (Senegalese violin) side-by-side with the more familiar complement of Senegalese percussion (sabar) and chattering guitars made famous by previous recordings.
That NDour would continue by making an album like NOTHING’S IN VAIN (COONO DU RÉÉR) to brave the hydra-headed critique of traditionalists at home, world music purists abroad and nostalgics and pop reductionists everywhere (those who would tailor him down to a stadium-swaying African music icon) is not in the least surprising. Such uncanny insouciance a resistance to musical conservatism of any stripe only typfies who NDour is as an artist. It was rather the range of colors, and the gracefulness of their blend, which surprised in NOTHING’S IN VAIN (COONO DU RÉÉR).
Religious expression in Senegal is so much a part of the fabric of everyday life as to be nearly indistinguishable from popular culture. The religious life of the Senegalese permeates their national economy, their politics, civil society and family. With his most recent album release, EGYPT (Nonesuch 2004), Youssou NDour, ever the world music explorer, has turned his attention homeward with a musical document of his introspective pilgrimage to the heartland of Sufi (Muslim mystical) culture in his own country.
NDours internationally released albums have always subtly negotiated the crossroads of tradition and modernism, and in all of them he has created daring syntheses of Senegalese music with other musics. EGYPT leaps, again, from Senegalese tradition to an outside source of musical inspiration, but in a quite unexpected way. The compositions on EGYPT marry Senegalese rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements with arrangements from the repertoire of Egyptian and Arab orchestral sound. Recording with traditional Senegalese instrumentalists and singers in Dakar and Fathy Salamas sparkling Cairene orchestra as if to throw into relief the historical linkages between the great seats of Islamic learning to the North and West Africas outposts of Sufi thought NDour has crafted this record into a vehicle for some of the most moving vocal performance of his career. The spread of Islam beyond the cradle of its Arabian origins has often resulted in a blending of local religiosity with Koranic scripture, with ahadith (the record of the traditionsof the Prophet Mohamed) and with the essential tenets of the faith. In nearly every part of the world where Islam has established itself from Golden Age Spain to India, from Egypt to Turkey, from Persia to the port cities of East Africa, from Chinas Xinjiang Province to Indonesia, and not least, to be sure, in the western portions of the Bilad al-Sudan (Land of the Black People) syncretistic cultural enrichments have been the rule. Sufism, by virtue of its inherent popular appeal, has been the emotional doorway to those enrichments.
The spread of Islam was for the most part accomplished not by fire and sword but rather, as Anne-Marie Schimmel has said, by the preaching of the Sufis who knew how to win the hearts of the people. The particularity of Muslim practices, and of Sufism, in Senegal is to be found in the vibrancy of the countrys homegrown Sufi communities, in their palpably modern adaptation to the rhythms of post-Independence Africa, in the wholesome social initiatives their teachings inspire among people in all walks of Senegalese life, and in the tolerant, ecumenical nature of popular response to their programs, celebrations and rituals. As NDour has explained to both the BBC and Al-Jazeera, EGYPT is an album which praises the tolerance of my religion, which has been badly misused by a certain ideology. At a time when there is a debate on Islam, the world needs to know how people are taking over this religion. Our religion has nothing to do with the violence, with terrorism.
The very conception and existence of EGYPT is evidence of this of a distinctive Senegalese way of Islam, and of Sufi thought and practice. While all of the Senegalese Sufi communities trace their origins to Sufi movements (turuq) founded in the Arab world, they today reflect a truly unique spiritual environment and ethos. Nearly all of the lyrical references in this album are to venerated caliphs, saints and sages of Senegal, the greatest of the Senegalese Sufi marabouts who have transmitted the power of their faith to the Senegalese people and created mass organizations of followers who to this day breathe that faith into the loftiest and into the most quotidian activities of the nation.
With his own syncretistic formula of griot praise-singing within an envelope of Sufi chant, Youssou NDour celebrates, with EGYPT, a religious milieu in Senegal which is obviously special. Yet, beyond its Senegalese particularity, EGYPT is also a confluence of Muslim spiritualities, a melting-pot of religious sentiment, history and search. In the likeness of the unfathomable country which is the albums namesake, EGYPTs encounter with the Divine radiates throughout the album, mediated, in the true spirit of Sufism, by representations of both the humility and the nobility of human experience. In the likeness of the hardscrabble but gracefully spiritual country of NDours birth, EGYPT may prove to be a harbinger of Westerners appreciation for the diverse potentialities of musical art and of life in the Muslim world.
On February 13, 2005, Youssou NDour was awarded his first Grammy by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences for Best Contemporary World Music Album, for EGYPT.
Youssou NDour will present the debut North American performance of the music of EGYPT on October 26, 2005 in Carnegie Halls Isaac Stern Auditorium.
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