June 2019 Artist of the Month: Youssou N'Dour

Youssou N’Dour

How important is Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour? So important that he recently served as his nation’s Minister of Tourism. So important that he’s often said to be the finest living African musician and some have proclaimed him the greatest ever. You name a Western artist and that person has either collaborated with N’Dour or dreams of doing so. A small sampling of N’Dour’s cross-cultural projects run the gamut from Peter Gabriel to Lou Reed, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen. He has been so prolific that he’s exhausted musical labels: World Beat, Afro-Pop, Desert Blues, International, Muslim griot….

N’Dour actually sprung from a West African hybrid called mbalax, which freely mixes rock, jazz, and traditional music and sets songs to hand drums. This creates a popular type of club dance music, but also a sound that befits ceremonies from religious rites to birthday celebrations. History is N’Dour’s first recording in four years. Like a bride’s wedding costume, it’s something old, something borrowed, and something new.  If you are a longtime N’Dour fan, you’ll hear vintage songs such as “My Child” and “Takuta” that memorialize Babatunda Olatunji (1921-2003), the Nigerian percussionist with whom N’Dour worked for many years. These songs are seamless blends of pop and jazz served sunny side up. Listen to N’Dour’s charming accented English in the first: Oh my child/Don’t you worry/I be dance for you. Olatunji used pulses, sticks, and blocks to steady the second song, one that also sports alto sax and powerful, yet calm tones. The piece evokes the vibe of soft California-style jazz.

N’Dour’s English has gotten more precise, and he also sings in French and several African languages. History dusts off a few more 1990s hits such as “Salimata” and “Ay Coona La,” but these are where the old and borrowed meet the new. Each has a mellow instrumental wrapper–perfect frames for N’Dour’s muscular voice. Some might also recognize another old hit, “Hello,” but we get a remix on History, this one with a Congolese woman named Mohombi singing the lead and N’Dour breaking through the background with exhorting vocals. About two minutes in N’Dour’s band rocks out with some crashing electric guitar and big swells before settling back into a softer groove. I’m still not sure if I prefer these to the originals, but they are well done.

N’Dour’s versatility is all over this album. There is the soulful and tender “Tell Me,” as well as “Birma,” his love letter to Africa. The latter is a remake that features the Gambian-Swedish chanteuse Seinabo Sey. I could go on, but there really isn’t much I can say except to tell the uninitiated that millions associate Yassou N’Dour’s music with the very pulse of West Africa. He belongs to the world now, so there’s no excuse for not listening.

Rob Weir

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