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, '50s, and '60s 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 and songwriter 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 has described his voice as “an arresting tenor, deployed with prophetic authority,” one that “soars heavenward with passion and then wafts tenderly toward earth.”
As a craftsman of an inimitable brand of ensemble music, N'Dour absorbs the entire diversity of the Senegalese musical spectrum in his work, often filtering his country’s musical heritage through a modernist 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, and to the “TIME 100” in 2007, TIME magazine’s annual list of “the hundred men and women whose power, talent, or moral example is transforming the world," N'Dour has made mbalax famous throughout the world during nearly 30 years of recording and touring outside of Senegal with his band, the Super Étoile.
National Public Radio and Rolling Stone contributor Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock music critics, has consistently clamored for an ever-wider recognition of N’Dour’s gifts, variously calling N'Dour “the world's greatest pop vocalist” and, most recently, “the world's most consistent record maker this decade.” He has written that N’Dour is “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 memorable 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 Étoile 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 less auspicious. 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 Étoile, acknowledged as Africa's most popular live band, 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 that 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 post-midnight marathon dance party in the Senegalese style, he and the Super Étoile feature the kind of unhinged performances typical of the surreal Dakar nightclubs. In these annual soirées, N'Dour's African immigrant patrons in Paris and New York become, for one night in each city, his co-stars, their celebratory verve finding expression in an extraordinary popular spectacle. As the New York Times has commented:
New York City doesn't get any closer to Africa than at Youssou N'Dour's annual Great African Ball. Instead of an abbreviated club or concert set, the Great African Ball presents what his band might play on its home territory, where club shows run without curfews. At previous concerts, the electrified griot songs of Mr. N'Dour's band, The Super Étoile, stretched out and exulted in their six-beat groove; Mr. N'Dour unfurled all the glories of his impassioned, soaring voice. And tall, graceful Senegalese, onstage and in the audience, danced in bursts of flailing limbs, as if struck by lightning. Mr. N'Dour has thoughtfully internationalized his music through the years, but these concerts celebrate how close he remains to home.
NOTHING'S IN VAIN (COONO DU RÉÉR)
Youssou N’Dour’s Nothing's in Vain (Coono du Réér) (Nonesuch, 2002) was the first album N’Dour made directly for Nonesuch, the label having released Joko (The Link) under license. This maiden Nonesuch album purposefully continued the essential ambition of N’Dour’s 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 N’Dour’s alacrity in weaving disparate strands of Senegalese and other world musics into an infectiously uplifting personal sound. With Nothing's in Vain, N’Dour made more liberal use of traditional acoustic instruments—like the 21-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, djembé,and tama) and chattering guitars made famous by his previous recordings.
That N’Dour 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) was not in the least surprising. Such uncanny insouciance—a resistance to musical conservatism of any stripe—only typifies who N’Dour is as an artist. It was rather the range of colors, and the gracefulness of their blend, which surprised in Nothing's in Vain.
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 release of the album Egypt (Nonesuch, 2004), Youssou N’Dour, ever the world music explorer, turned his attention homeward with a musical document of his introspective pilgrimage to the heartland of Sufi (Muslim mystical) culture in his own country.
N’Dour’s 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 Salama’s sparkling Cairene orchestra—as if to throw into relief the historical linkages between the great seats of Islamic learning to the North and West Africa’s outposts of Sufi thought—N’Dour 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 and 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 China’s Xinjiang Province to Indonesia, and not least, to be sure, in West Africa and in Senegal—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 country’s 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 N’Dour 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 N’Dour 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 album’s namesake, Egypt's 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 N’Dour’s 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.
In 2005, Youssou N’Dour was awarded his first Grammy by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in the United States for “Best Contemporary World Music Album”, for Egypt. N’Dour presented the debut North American performance of the music of Egypt on October 26, 2005, in Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium in New York, following an extensive slate of European and African performances, and thereafter performed this music in a prestigious run of another dozen concerts in symphony halls across the United States.
ROKKU MI ROKKA (GIVE AND TAKE)
Youssou N’Dour made his long-awaited debut as a film actor in 2007 in Academy Award winner Michael Apted’s historical drama Amazing Grace. This film depicts the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire two hundred years ago, with a focus on the efforts of the impassioned British parlementarian William Wilberforce and those who rallied to his cause, including Olaudah Equiano, the self-made African merchant and author and former slave whom N’Dour portrays.
That year also saw the release of yet another daring creation by this artist who refuses to be constrained by his own past, while knowing how best to be nourished by it. N’Dour’s newest release, Rokku mi Rokka (Give and Take), is, for Charlie Gillett, perhaps Britain’s most respected world music broadcaster, critic, and historian, “a blissfully good album,” an “adventurous and extraordinary album [that] feels like a new pinnacle” in N’Dour’s career. Rokku mi Rokka prominently features Bassekou Kouyate, an ngoni player from Mali whom Gillett identifies as “a defining figure in modern West African music” in his own right, notably through his work with countrymen Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, and with African-American roots music legend Taj Mahal, and for his own critically acclaimed album Segu Blue (Out Here Records, 2007).
The ngoni is a five-stringed lute similar to the Senegalese xalam featured in Nothing's in Vain. Kouyate’s playing on several of the songs of Rokku mi Rokka is the catalyst for a lighter, more open sound than the dense, intense textures which tend to be the infrastructure of N’Dour’s often pensive, but always richly polyrhythmic compositions.
N’Dour is clear in how he pinpoints the geographical and emotional foothold for most of the songs of Rokku mi Rokka: “The music on this album has its roots in the north of our country, from the desert, from the Sahelian corridor, from parts of the country that border on Mali and Mauritania. People from those countries will know and understand this music as well as people who come from the center of Senegal,” he says.
“Some people might think Senegalese music means only mbalax. But all my life, alongside my friends—Baaba Maal, Ismael Lo, and others—I have been saying that this is not the only music we have in Senegal. We have such a wide range of sounds and rhythms and colors. When it came to writing the songs for this album, I wanted to use different sounds.”