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After countless forays into the western world, Youssou N’Dour chose Dakar as a base from which to lead his geopolitical campaign in music.
His strategy is pan-African: "What all of us Africans share is much more important than what we don't share," says this elegant, fifty-year old youngster, who grew up in the Medina in Senegal's capital city, Dakar. Bringing unity to the African continent has been his priority for a long time; the key (along with love, opinions and a great festive sense) lay in the professional practise of music for some thirty-seven years. Yet his career was bound to lead to a form of musical expression that has become universal: Reggae, which was born in Jamaica in the Sixties.
As a man of the media and a fighter for citizens' rights – from wiping out the African debt to the battle against malaria – Youssou N’Dour is well aware of the political import of reggae, the music-genre directly linked to Rastafarianism, whose leading figure was the "Ras Tafari" Haile Selassie, the black Emperor of Ethiopia.
As a religion, intellectual movement and way of life, Rastafarianism was conceived some thirty years before the first sound-systems by two Jamaican renegades living in The United States, Marcus Garvey, the ideologist of beauty and black rebellion, and preacher Leonard Percival Howell, who left Jamaica on a ship to America but returned from Harlem to work the soil in the hills of the Caribbean.
"From Brazil to Australia and even in Bombay / Africans, Indians and the Portuguese / they love the one-drop in the roots of reggae…" sings Youssou N’Dour today. And in Marley Demna, a tribute to Bob Marley, he goes on, "In the market, his music played all day. Marley was a young man who floated away. He showed the world the route of reggae / One love, No woman no cry." Youssou N’Dour shows his allegiance to the genre without pretending to belong; his approach is different from that of African reggae's creators, Alpha Blondy from the Ivory Coast, the South African Lucky Dube, who was shot to death in 2007, or followers such as Tiken Jah Fakoli, who took refuge in Mali in 2003 to escape the violence of the civil war raging in the Ivory Coast. What they created, diving deep into their roots, was a radical political movement.
Youssou, on the other hand, brushed the wings of reggae with his fingertips. He did so notably in 2000, with the album Joko from Village to Town, which featured an appearance by the Fugee Wyclef Jean, an Afro-American of Haitian origin. But African unity wasn't the only thing in the mind of Youssou N’Dour: he also had the desire to untangle the threads of the black Diaspora. In 1992 he found an ally in filmmaker Spike Lee, who released the album Eyes Open on his label '40 Acres and A Mule' (named after the compensation awarded to freed slaves after the American Civil War). At the time Youssou wore a "wooy wooy", the woolly hat taken from a song dedicated to the children of Africa quickly branded with an 'X', as in Malcom X, (but also an 'X' as in Xippi, his recording-studio in Dakar.) In 2007, in Amazing Grace, the film made by British director Michael Apted, Youssou played out the tragedy of the Negro slave trade in his role as the slave-poet Olaudah Equiano.
When "You" gives a concert, everything jumps; he brings entire stadiums to their feet. This is Dakar by night, Dakar the capital of pulsating rhythms. Mbalax, the rhythm of the Wolofs, the ethnic majority, is an art-form like a whirling fan (with the dancer's fanny replacing the fan.) It's also an emotional dance, one of trance, and this is how the story of young Youssou, the kid with the golden voice, began. He was born one October in 1959, the son of a labourer named Elimane and his wife Ndèye Sokhna Mboup, a traditional "Griot" singer. After two years in street-theatre, Youssou's career really started when he was thirteen, and it was the result of a miracle: in 1972, Papa Semba Diop, known as Mba, passed away. He was the leader of the Star Band in Dakar, and Youssou sang a tribute to him, a song he composed onstage right there in Senegal's Saint-Louis Stadium. "Everyone was still in tears, and I brought a little joy. I was vibrating. Mba was like a star fading from the sky." At the end of his song, Youssou was given a standing ovation.
The kid used to go down to the beach at Soumbédioune in Dakar, collecting the little sucker-fish known as takgaal and roasting them on the spot. In the small hours of the morning, he could smell the ovens cooking pastries in the Medina, and in his mind he could already see himself onstage: his career was on the move. In 1990 came one of his most beautiful albums, Set, which included the song Medina, an elegy that was pure and filled with nostalgia, and it featured a clear trumpet whose sound was almost Middle-Eastern. Every day he heard the muezzin's calls to prayer, and some nights he could hear the voice of the Egyptian idol Oum Kalsoum.
In 2003 he celebrated his becoming a Murid, following the spiritual path of Sufism, with the album Egypt, recorded in Cairo with an Egyptian orchestra conducted by Fati Salama. Two years later in 2005, this hymn to a tolerant Islam received a Grammy Award in America despite the conflict in Iraq. The title Shukran Bamba gave fervent thanks to Sheik Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Murid brotherhood: "You taught me pardon and compassion, and the rejection of violence and arrogance." Reggae words, man.
In 1981, after leaving the Etoiles group in Dakar, Youssou founded the exemplary orchestra Super Etoile. The sound of the Middle East didn't corrupt the Super Etoile any more than the Jamaican musicians hired for the recording of XXXXX. With electric guitar, bass, balafon, teeming percussion, tama (armpit-drum) or djembe, nothing was left to risk. Super Etoile, with all its human variables, was uniquely solid: 1984 saw its Parisian debuts during Africa Fête, the African cultural festival set up by Mamadou Konté from Mali, and it featured in the great pan-African dances and events organised at the Bercy Omnisports stadium in Paris by its leader.
After meeting Peter Gabriel in 1984, Youssou N’Dour joined "Band Aid for Ethiopia"; in 1988 he sang at Wembley when Nelson Mandela was freed, and then alongside Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen for Amnesty International. Himself an intensely loyal man, Youssou N’Dour also provoked fidelity: Sting joined Joko for one title, Don’t Walk Away, a nonchalant pop tune with lyrics written by Yussuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). The star from Dakar chose its rhythms and worked on its one drop material for the present album.
There are new things here, and compositions written for the circumstance (a magnificent Black Woman, syncopated and swaying), not to mention new readings of past hits like the old Pitche Me, taken from Immigrés (1986), produced with the assistance of Tyron Downie. This huge figure started in music in 1969 at thirteen with Bob Marley, playing with The Wailers during the master's time, and then with Peter Tosh or Sly & Robbie before settling in France to keep watch over the sounds of Tonton David and Tiken Jah Fakoly.
Youssou N’Dour could have fallen into the trap of a flat tribute to the federating hero Bob Marley, but instead he chose to take a look at himself in the reggae mirror: when he founded his club, he called it the Thiossane, a word that means "Our history, reality, that of the lineage which the griots knew and told stories about. My mother and my grandmother were Griots, Toucouleurs people from West Africa. The Griots are there for circumcisions, christenings and wedding feats... they arrange the way the celebrations are organised... But in everyday life they invite themselves to people's houses, and spend the day telling stories, humming tales from the countryside about our ancestors, and they accompany themselves on the khalam, a four-string guitar. You can recognise the Griots because every part of their body talks: eyes, hands, even their behinds..."
By 1996 he was already famous worldwide thanks to 7 Seconds, his duet with Neneh Cherry (released in 1994 on the album Wommat, which also featured his cover of Bob Dylan's Chimes of Freedom), and he recorded Voices of the Heart of Africa with the great Yandé Codou Sène in the pure Senegalese Griot tradition. Still loyal, in 2007 he released Rokku Mi Rokka (the title is in the Pulaar language of the Toucouleurs) with musicians from the north, on the borders of Mauritania and the Sahel states of Mali. From that album's traditional return, the new convert to the rhythms of Kingston has chosen Bobolene here.
Nothing’s In Vain, another call for unity, dates from 2002, and it included both Joker, here picked up by vocalist Patrice, and Africa Dream Again, which features Nigerian singer Ayo. With brass, percussion, bass and guitar lines all from Jamaican sources – the album was recorded in the spring of 2009 at Kingston's Tuff Gong studios with Dean Fraser on saxophone, Michael Fletcher on "dancehall" bass and Earl “Chinna” Smith on guitar – the album's instrumental add-ons are all wedded to Africa's memory and modernity, and its leitmotif is Youssou N’Dour: from Bombay to Rio, and from Dakar to Melbourne, via New York and Bamako. Véronique Mortaigne.
Looking for more Youssou N'Dour information including sound and video clips? Go "beyond the bio" with The Artistic Director's Guide to Jazz.