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


Fix the NHL: Go International

Henri Richard prepares to shoot

Once upon a time, the National Hockey League was a synonym for "Canadian." Players from the Great North so dominated NHL ranks that it was noteworthy when someone from the U.S. made the roster.

No more. The Stanley Cup-wining St. Louis Blues were an oddball in that of the 34 skaters who laced up for the Blues this year, Canadians outnumbered those from elsewhere by more than 2:1 margin. Their opponents, the Boston Bruins, were more typical; their roster had 16 Americans, 7 Canadians, 7 Swedes, 4 Slovaks, 2 Czechs, and 2 Finns. Overall, Canadians make up just a tick under 50 percent of current NHL players.

Ice hockey has become an international sport. Blame the communists. In 1956, the Soviet Union began dominating the Olympics and International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments, the "world cup" of hockey, winning 10 of the next 12 Olympics. (The two odd d/pucks were the USA in 1960,and1 980, not Canada.) Then two things happened: the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Sweden won gold in 1994. The story is the same for the hockey world cup–Canada and Russia have done well, but so have Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Finland. Even Slovakia hoisted an IIHF crown.

Worsely makes save
I love the NHL, but it's woefully behind the times. Both international hockey tournaments and the Olympics offer a far superior spectator product. It's still the case that you won't find a better assemblage of hockey talent anywhere on the planet than at an NHL rink. It's also true, however, that NHL rink is built as if Henri Richard was about to unload a shot on Gump Worsley. If those names don't rings bells, Henri ("The Pocket Rocket") Richard played in the NHL from 1955-75, and Gump Worsley was a goalie who strapped on the pads from 1952-84. Both are in the Hall of Fame and each was just 5'7" tall. Worsley, by the way, never wore a mask. Therein lies the next chapter of the tale.

Zdeno Chara, the anti-Richard!

Notice the size!
I'm not about to launch into one a boorish rant about how things were better in some hypothetical golden age. Things change. If you've ever seen Zdeno Chara on skates, the dude looks like he should be in the NBA. It's not a trick of the eye; he's 7'2" when he's in his skates. The average goaltender is now 6'3"before putting on skates, helmet, mask, and enough padding to make a medieval knight jealous. A guy who is 5'10" tall is now called a "small" player.

All of this begs the question of why NHL rinks still look like they did in Henri Richard's era. Oh sure, those old buildings are long gone (and not necessarily for the better), but the NHL ice sheet is 85' wide by 200' feet long with 11 feet behind the nets. By contrast, Olympic-sized rinks are 100' wide by 200' with 13' feet behind the nets. The latter reward highly skilled skaters, the likes of whom routinely rush down ice at better than 20 mph. For the fan it means a faster-paced game with more scoring opportunities. There are also fewer penalties taken by goons sniping on forwards, not to mention that fighting is an automatic ejection in every league except the NHL.

The NHL has had trouble getting a major TV contract outside of Canada and that's partly because NHL hockey is often pretty boring. The puck is hard to see, even on today's high-def screens because it spends too much time lost in a scrum of big guys pushing and shoving along the boards. The same heavy traffic occurs in front of the net. How often have you not even seen a goal until the slow motion replay runs? We don't see nearly enough beautiful skating with crisp cross-ice passes that result in pinpoint slap shots. The NHL can try any gimmick it wants–Peter Puck or Laser Puck anyone?–but until it unclogs the ice, TV hockey will remain the small domain of hockey nuts. There just aren't enough of them for the major networks to have the U.S. equivalent of Hockey Night in Canada.

Why not just widen the rinks? Money, m'boys. Adding 7.5' on each side of the rink means reducing capacity by eliminating rows of premium seats. Hockey is way more dependent upon attendance revenue than other major sports. Take baseball for example. Attendance has fallen, yet its total revenue has risen. It's not just bums in the seats that generate cash. The Yankees can pack 47,000 people into their ballpark, but 277,000 watch each game on TV. Can you say advertising revenue? Residuals? Merchandise tie-ins?

The NHL finds itself in a vicious circle of its own making. Owners don't want to reduce rink capacity, so we continue to see games on surfaces built for yesterday's game. Today's players are better, but fewer people outside the rink see them because the game has grown duller. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hasn't done much right since taking the reins in 1993, but were he to mandate bigger ice surfaces, I'd stamp his pass for the Hall of Fame. Hockey is an international sport and it's time the NHL treats it as such.

Rob Weir


Rami Malek Dazzles in So-So Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Directed by Brian Singer
20th Century Fox, 134 minutes, PG-13 (mild language, sexual situations)

Here’s part three of catching up with Oscar-winning films I didn’t see in the theater. Bohemian Rhapsody won four Academy Awards, including Rami Malek’s Best Oscar statue for his portrayal of rock legend Freddie Mercury.

A disclaimer: I was never a fan of Queen. I knew the basics of Freddie Mercury’s life and it was impossible not to hear Queen’s hit singles; “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” were staples in ballparks and hockey arenas, for example. But I dodged disco and glam rock in the mid-70s and ‘80s, both of which I dislike to this day. In my mind, pop-rock went off the deep end when The Who released Quadrophenia (1973).

This is prelude to admitting that I am unqualified to say how true or not Malek was to the historical Freddie Mercury. I will say, though, that of all the actors nominated for Best Actor, Malek deserved to win the Oscar. (Or at least I think so, as I’m yet to see Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born.) His was a strong portrayal of an Indian-Brit* trying to fit into worlds in which he is by nature an outcast. He was a short man with funny teeth, dark-skinned, a risk-taker in the conservative music industry, and gay. Malek shows us the allure of trying to go mainstream, the frustration of being rebuffed, and the costs associated with defying expectations.

We meet Farrokh Bulsara­–Mercury’s birth name­–in 1970, when he is a Heathrow baggage handler who goes clubbing at night and admires a band called Smile. First anachronism: No club bands had sound this clean in 1970. When Smile’s lead singer abruptly quits, Farrokh belts out a tune in the parking lot and is hired as the new vocalist. Anachronism two: Bands don’t audition singers as they are packing up a van. These are movie fairy tales, but we get the idea that it was a good idea to give the “Paki”** a shot.

As in most rock dramatizations, time is elided and liberties are taken with how the band’s rise unfolded, but in the film “Freddie” pushes the band to think big. He also acquires a girlfriend/fiancĂ©, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), although I gather this didn’t happen the way it’s portrayed either. In the wink of a camera’s eye–though it actually took three years–Smile has been renamed Queen, Farrokh has changed his legal name to Freddie Mercury, Queen has a string of hits, and wings off to North America, where Freddie begins to ponder his sexual preferences as he eyes beefcake at a truckstop. The last of these seems far-fetched, but maybe that’s how it went down.

In 1975, two big events take place. First, Freddie sticks to his guns and insists that “Bohemian Rhapsody” should be released as a single, even though his record label hates the song and claims it’s too long for radio play. Second, Freddie tells Mary he’s bisexual and she (allegedly) tells him he’s actually gay and breaks off their engagement. Director Brian Singer is a controversial figure who is fending off numerous allegations of gay sexual abuse of minors. Such charges are nightmares for gay men seeking mainstream acceptance, and Singer didn’t do them any other favors when he presents Freddie’s immersion into a gay lifestyle as concomitant with things unraveling for Queen.

Again, time elision is the culprit. Queen acquires a new manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech, Tom in Downton Abbey), who is a huckster and Freddie’s lover. Prenter is presented as holding a Svengali-like hold over Freddie, who descends into an abyss marked by reckless sex, drugs, non-stop parties, and fights with the band over missed rehearsals and recording sessions. He becomes–and I use the terms advisedly–bitchy and swishy. Singer presents all of this is in quickstep, though what happened after 1975 actually unfolded over 9 years. When Prenter dropped the ball and almost locked Queen out of the 1984 Live-Aid concert, he was fired and went on the talk show circuit to out Mercury publicly. It didn’t matter, as Queen slayed the London Live-Aid audience and Freddie took up with a more stable lover, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). There was an outpouring of grief when Mercury contracted AIDS and died.

Bohemian Rhapsody was not universally loved. I gather that if you are a Queen purist there are significant departures from what actually happened. In my estimation, in its totality this is a so-so film. Band members are too often presented as deer caught in Mercury’s headlights; only rarely do they have agency of their own. This is also a problem with the way Boynton’s part was written. She often appears as a muse, who flits in Tinkerbell style to save Freddie from himself and, like the band, has little personality when not swimming in Mercury (as it were). Another beef: This is still another rock bio whose structure is built along an arc that takes us from one hit to the next. Hollywood wasn’t going to cough up a Best Director Oscar given Singer’s legal woes, but he didn’t deserve one anyhow.

Let’s call Bohemian Rhapsody what it is: a run-of-the mill effort lifted by one great performance. While I’m at it, the movie is like the titular song–longer than it needs to be.

Rob Weir

* Mercury was born on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar. His parents were Indian and fled because their Parsi religious beliefs made them targets of both Hindu and Muslim bigots.   

** Paki is short for Pakistan and is a racist term used in the film (and society) by British yahoos. It is a colonial holdover that denigrates those of Southeast Asian descent regardless of actual birthplace or nationality.