Youssou N'Dour Biography
Inspired by His Roots, Made It Big with the Super Etoile, Gained International Attention
Singer, composer, drummer
Youssou N'Dour is an international star in the field of popular music that has come to be known as "Afropop" or "world beat." He is a singer, composer, and drummer whose style has been given the name "mbalax." N'Dour's own particular brand of mbalax has become so popular and widespread that he is often credited with inventing the genre, although Ronnie Graham stated in his authoritative book on contemporary African music that mbalax is a generic Senegalese music characterized by a percussion base and featuring an improvised solo on the sabar drum. Mbalax has also been described as modern Senegalese rock.
Graham described Senegalese pop music of the late 1980s as "a sophisticated blend of the old and the new," with the old being primarily Cuban-influenced melodies and rhythms that dominated Senegalese music prior to the 1970s. The development of local styles was seriously hindered by the French philosophy of exporting their own culture; and local idioms, instruments, and traditions did not begin to appear in urban contemporary music until the 1970s, after Senegal had achieved independence. The tama, a small talking drum, was introduced in the 1970s and became a popular lead instrument.
N'Dour calls his music "African storytelling on the wings of 21st-century instrumentation," according to Vanity Fair. N'Dour's own mbalax features a rhythmic dance band consisting of as many as 14 members, including multiple percussionists, guitarists, saxophonists, and backing vocalists. As N'Dour achieved greater recognition and acceptance among Western audiences in Europe and the United States during the late 1980s, he began to use more traditional African and Arabic sounds in his music. Although he is fluent in French, Arabic, and his native Wolof, his English is not very good. Thus, he is at his best when able to present an appealing and authentic brand of African pop, with its own unique rhythms and vocalizations sung in Wolof, one of Senegal's major native languages.
Inspired by His Roots
N'Dour was born on October 1, 1959, in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on the west coast of Africa. Historically, Senegal is a part of French or francophone Africa. Musically, external influences within Senegal and other parts of francophone Africa were more restricted than in anglophone or British Africa. N'Dour grew up in a traditional African community within the Medina section of the city, a place has continued to offer great inspiration for his music. He related to Interview that Dakar was to him "a living poem, a place of unbridled energy, remarkable ambition and legendary artistic flair. I know of no other city on earth where people do so much with so little."
The story of N'Dour's upbringing is that his father was a mechanic who discouraged him from a musical career. His mother, however, was a griot in the community. A griot is a historian and storyteller within the community. N'Dour's mother was a respected elder who kept the oral tradition of the community's history alive through traditional songs and moral teachings.
With his mother's encouragement, N'Dour would sing at kassak, a party to celebrate circumcision. As N'Dour described his work then, "Sometimes on one street there would be four or five kassaks going on at the same time. They would start in the evening and I would go to one and sing two numbers, then on to the next…. Sometimes I used to sing at 10 kassaks a night. Gradually, my friends and others encouraged me and gave me confidence, because they liked my singing."
Made It Big with the Super Etoile
By the age of 14, N'Dour was performing in front of large audiences and had earned the nickname, "Le Petit Prince de Dakar," or "The Little Prince of Dakar." As a teenager he joined the Star Band, the best known Senegalese pop band of the time, recording with them and performing in clubs in Dakar. By the time he was 20, he had left the Star Band to form his own group, Etoile de Dakar (Star of Dakar). They recorded three albums in Dakar and had a hit with their first single, "Xalis (Money)." Then they relocated to Paris and reformed as the Super Etoile de Dakar (Superstar of Dakar).
Living in Paris and the European milieu provided N'Dour with a range of new musical influences to contend with. He says, "When I started to play music, I was playing traditional music. But when I came to Europe to listen to the sounds around me, by 1984 I had a new attitude. I'm a new person now , opening fast. I like to change. I'm African, yes, but I like to play music for everybody. But my identity is African. That will never change."
From his base in Paris, N'Dour and the Super Etoile began to win over Western audiences to the sound of mbalax. The Super Etoile consisted of 14 members, probably the largest aggregation N'Dour would ever perform with. The group used traditional Wolof and African rhythms behind N'Dour's unique tenor. N'Dour sang and continues to sing in Wolof, his vocal style often compared to Islamic chanting reminiscent of mosques and temples.
Gained International Attention
By the mid-1980s, the group was ready for a major international breakthrough. They had toured the United States, Great Britain, and Holland, in addition to playing at N'Dour's nightclub in Dakar, the Thiosanne. Remembering his audiences in Dakar and his friends from the Medina, N'Dour made it a point to return there. A song he wrote, "Medina," celebrates his old neighborhood and his old friends, who "are still my friends today and are the people I have around me." As his career progressed, N'Dour remained in touch with his roots and made his home base in Dakar. He told Time in 2001 that living in Dakar "gives me a certain inspiration; it allows me to keep my passion for music alive."
N'Dour and Super Etoile released an album in 1985 that became a classic in the Afro-pop field, Immigres. It was released in the United States three years later. N'Dour increased his exposure to Western audiences in 1986 by appearing as a drummer on Paul Simon's Graceland album. He recorded the Nelson Mandela album in Paris that year and toured the United States twice with Super Etoile, once on their own and once opening for Peter Gabriel. N'Dour sang backing vocals on Gabriel's So album, and it is Gabriel who is the Western musician most responsible for bringing Youssou N'Dour to America and other Western nations.
N'Dour continued to tour with Peter Gabriel in 1988, reducing the size of his band to six pieces and a dancer. In the summer of that year, N'Dour played New York's first International Festival of the Arts at the Beacon Theatre. The influence of American pop on N'Dour was revealed in his playing half a set's worth of American pop and soul, with Nona Hendryx joining him for a song in English and Wolof. New York Times writer, Jon Parelis, wrote of N'Dour, "What makes Mr. N'Dour an international sensation, along with the dance rhythms of mbalax, is his unforgettable voice, a pure, pealing tenor that melds pop sincerity with the nuances of Islamic singing." Noting that mbalax has always combined international influences with Senegalese traditions, Parelis expressed his concern that American pop was diluting the effect of N'Dour's singing and the band's rhythms. N'Dour would later echo this concern in Rolling Stone, when he said, "It's a very difficult balance to keep the roots and bring in a bit of the Western world."
Leveraged His Fame for the Needy
In the Fall of 1988, N'Dour gained even greater international exposure as part of Amnesty International's "Human Rights Now!" world tour. At London's Wembley Stadium, N'Dour joined Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman to sing Bob Marley's classic reggae song, "Get Up, Stand Up." It was the start of a 44-day tour of five continents, including such Third World and Eastern bloc nations as Hungary, India, Zimbabwe, Argentina, and Brazil. Only two U.S. dates were included, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
Over the years, N'Dour has tried to leverage his celebrity to benefit others. To help his country, he bought a newspaper, a nightclub, a radio station, and a recording studio in order to offer employment to his people. He has participated in several charity album recordings. He has campaigned for the debt relief of developing nations. He has served as Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador to UNICEF, and Ambassador to the International Bureau of Work. In 2001 he also started an internet training company called Joko in order to introduce a greater number of Senegalese to the World Wide Web. N'Dour's original songs also include political and social commentary.
Personal Messages Woven into His Music
N'Dour is also capable of writing and performing songs with a personal lyric content, songs about his old neighborhood and childhood pals, about the youth of his country, and about roaming the countryside with a friend. In 1989, Virgin Records released a new N'Dour album, The Lion (Gaiende). It was recorded in Paris, England, and Dakar and was produced by George Acogny and David Sancious, who have combined backgrounds in jazz, pop, and rock. The Super Etoile, by now reduced to an eight-piece band, was joined by some Western musicians, including pop-jazz saxophonist David Sanborn 0027;Dour sing a duet on one of the album's tracks, "Shaking The Tree." N'Dour sings in Wolof on the album, but English translations of the lyrics are provided. In a review of the album, New York Times reviewer Jon Parelis again expressed his concern that too much Western influence was creeping into N'Dour's music, and he wrote, "Despite an undercurrent of Senegalese drums, the rippling vocal lines and dizzying polyrhythms that made Western listeners notice him are usually truncated."
By the Fall of 1989, Super Etoile was back to full strength with 12 pieces for N'Dour's club dates in the United States. The extra percussion and instrumentation helped restore the driving rhythm of N'Dour's music. Reviewing a performance at New York's the Ritz, Jon Parelis described the "two percussionists whose doubletime and tripletime rhythms restored mbalax's sense of swift, sprinting momentum." He noted that the intricate cross-rhythms combined well with a firm downbeat to provide a mix of Western and Senegalese styles. The show ended with a song about toxic wastes that would be released in 1990 as a single from N'Dour's Virgin album, Set.
N'Dour's songs on Set deal with personal emotions, social problems, and political issues. He says, "Most of the songs I heard in my youth were either love songs or traditional songs recounting the history of the people that I come from—praise songs, historical songs. The lyrics of my own works today I consider to be about the society in which I live, the world in which I live. I want my words to have an educational function."
Dubbed King of West African Music
The international success of Set set the stage for N'Dour to broaden his international fame. It inspired Rolling Stone contributor Brian Cullman to comment that "If any third-world performer has a real shot at the sort of universal popularity last enjoyed by Bob Marley, it's Youssou, a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it." Indeed, his star continued to rise. His 1994 album The Guide garnered two Grammy nominations. He wrote and performed, with Axelle Red, the anthem for the 1998 World Cup in France. By 2000, N'Dour was recognized as the "king of West African music," according to Billboard.
His greatest success came in 2004 when he released the album, Egypt. N'Dour deftly combined Senegalese percussion traditions with Arabic instrumental arrangements. The songs explore his Islamic faith. N'Dour has said that the songs were so personal that he did not intend to release the album, which he recorded with both Egyptian and Senegalese musicians in 1999. But world events soon changed his mind. "My religion needs to be better known for its positive side," he told Billboard. "Maybe this music can move us toward a greater understanding of the peaceful message of Islam." Reviewer Chris Nickson wrote in Sing Out! that Egypt is "one of those rare records that truly deserves to be called stunning, quite possibly the best thing N'Dour has ever achieved which is saying something indeed." His effort was honored with his first Grammy award in 2005.
Nelson Mandela, Polydor, 1986.
Immigres, Virgin, 1988.
The Lion (Gaiende), Virgin, 1989.
Set, Virgin, 1990.
Eyes Open, Columbia, 1992.
The Guide (Wommat), Chaos/Columbia, 1994.
Lii, Jololi, 1996.
St. Louis, Jololi, 1997.
Joko, Wea/Atlantic/Nonesuch, 2000.
Batay, Jololi, 2001.
Le Grand Bal, 1 and 2, Jololi, 2001.
Et Ses Amis, Universal International, 2002.
Nothing's in Vain, Warner/Nonesuch, 2002.
Egypt, Nonesuch, 2004.
Graham, Ronnie, The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, Da Capo Press, 1988.
Billboard, June 10, 2000; April 17, 2004.
Detroit Free Press, October 5, 1990.
Detroit Metro Times, October 3-9, 1990.
Detroit News, October 5, 1990.
Down Beat, May 1987.
Interview, May 2001, p. 76.
New York Times, July 2, 1988; July 2, 1989; November 8, 1989.
Newsweek, September 12, 1988.
People, October 10, 1988.
Rolling Stone, July 13-27, 1989; November 15, 199D.
Sing Out!, Fall 2004, p. 110.
Time, September 15, 2001, p. 66.
Vainty Fair, November 2004.
"Youssou N'Dour," Nonesuch, www.nonesuch.com/Hi_Band/index_frameset2.cfm?pointer=ndour.gif (August 12, 2005).
Youssou N'Dour, www.youssou.com (August 12, 2005).
—David Bianco and Sara Pendergast
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