In an industry, which thrives on formulaic trends and boasts one-hit wonders, it is rare for an African musician to achieve international superstar status. This feat is almost unheard of when the artist insists on living in their country of origin; and it borders the impossible if a vernacular language is used within an ‘ethnic’ musical style.
However, the success of the Senegalese born and based Youssou N’Dour, affirms him as far more than a musician – he is a worldwide phenomenon whose international career spans more than 20 years.
And it is precisely this type of apparent contradiction that has served as the underlying impetus of his life and work. With his new release, “Nothing’s in Vain” [Coono du Reer] N’Dour exemplifies his passion for finding unity within diversity.
He uses his astoundingly beautiful voice to gently defy cultural borders, while constantly and consciously exploring the link between contrasts. Through acknowledging differences N’Dour celebrates the connections he finds within – while embracing his deep West African roots he simultaneously interprets contemporary sensibility.
This is again reflected in his life, because beyond his impact as a dynamic performer and a prolific recording artist, N’Dour is also an astute businessman. At the age of 24, he started his own nightclub, Thiosanne, in his hometown Dakar – where he still performs regularly. He has built a state-of-the-art recording studio at his home, which also serves aspiring artists, and he now owns a popular radio station.
N’Dour’s penultimate, 2000 international release, Joko [The Link], was a largely collaborative and highly crossover album which received mixed responses. Some found it refreshing, while many purists felt he’d ‘sold out’ to commercial pressures and was drifting from his heritage. Skeptics found it difficult to understand how the opening track of N’Dour’s previous album, Joko, could assert the message that:
“If you don’t know where you’re heading anymore, go back to where you’ve come from”.
Essentially, this description does seem more appropriate when listening to his brand-new offering, Nothing’s in Vain [Coono du Reer].
It is a poetic and non-compromising album, which undoubtedly evokes a more authentic experience, suggesting a return to his African roots. N’Dour however, insists it is a departure, as it’s the first time he has used this array of traditional Senegalese instruments. However, instead of interpreting traditional songs, he fuses the kora [folk harp], xalam [5-strig lute] and riti [one-string violin] with contemporary arrangements and fresh compositions.
In hindsight, it becomes clear that N’Dour explores rather than experiments. He describes many of his experiences as ‘a journey’, and he speaks of ‘the circles of life’ which recreate these. His are journeys within journeys, and with closer scrutiny his voyage could be traced to his ancestral heritage.
N’Dour was born in Dakar, Senegal in 1959. His father was a mechanic, and it was through his griot mother, who was reknowned in their district for her exquisite voice, that he continued the musical lineage. By birthright alone, Griots are oral or musical historians. Traditionally they performed for royalty, or passed information from village to village through their performances. An old school griot, Lamine Konte once described them as “the keepers of collective consciousness”.
As a modern African, N’Dour was exposed to diverse influences, reflected in his love for latin music, James Brown and Marvin Gaye. He therefore draws a clear distinction between the more traditional griots and those, like himself, who have been named, ‘urban griots’. He does however, see a link which exists as a reflection of Africa today – in what he believes is an exciting meeting of the old and the new. As inherent storytellers, both generations interpret and comment on what they see and experience.
N’Dour accepts this responsibility, but as a powerful contemporary figure, people expect a lot from him, and he in turn goes back to his past – to his grandmother for counsel.
N’dour further honours this connection, by dedicating “Nothing’s in Vain” to his mother. Through the use of ancient instruments, easily recognizable to her, he presents universal themes with contemporary arrangements. His mother represents “love and women, and therefore it is an album for all women, an album for love”.
At an early age N’Dour joined his mother in song at traditional gatherings, and he soon became a local phenomenon. By the age of 16 he was performing professionally, and by 20, along with his contemporaries, he formed the band “Etoile de Dakar” [Star of Dakar], later renamed as “Super Etoile de Dakar”. Now known as “Super Etoile”, they remain Senegal’s leading group – and are internationally acknowledged as Africa’s most popular live band.
In line with his passion for dichotomy, N’Dour’s worldwide journey began when a Senegalese taxi driver, living in Paris, formed a network of fellow countrymen. These cabbies were not show business professionals, but their trail blazing initiated his first European performances.
This exposure led N’dour to the likes of Peter Gabriel, the Realworld music mogul, who legitimized indigenous music through categorization – he coined the name “World Music”.
Gabriel, who describes how his first encounter with N’Dour’s voice, in a small London club in 1984, “sent shivers down my spine”, and to date still proclaims him as “one of the best singers alive”. The young Senegalese had previously never heard the music of Gabriel, but this meeting led to their duet on “In Your Eyes” [from Gabriel’s 1985 album “So”] and sparked the first of N’Dours ongoing cross-cultural collaborations. He has subsequently recorded with artists as diverse as Paul Simon, Riuchi Sakamoto, Brian Eno and more recently with Neneh Cherry, Wyclef Jean and Sting.
Also, by joining Gabriel’s world tour, N’Dour and his band Super Etoile exposed their previously localized, percussion-driven, seven-beat rhythmic style Mbalax to the world.
N’Dour believes that:
“…these kinds of connections make things easier for people to understand. Music is today one – I’m really glad, because I worked a lot for this kind of thing. When you come to this position, there are no barriers of language, no barriers of sound, and it means for me that you have more respect for your roots. The more you go far, the more you are close to home. Today traditional music from different parts of the world is more important for me, I have even more respect…”
For N’Dour the future remains unpredictable, but he believes that this timeless new project, which was co-produced with his longtime musical director and bassist, Habib Faye, reflects exactly where he is right now. He feels he is now his true self and that this is why he invited African-international musicians to join him. They include the famed keyboardist Jean-Phillipe Rykiel, the master –drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose and the Madagascan accordionist Regis Gizavo.
“The world is like a school – everyday you learn something, meet someone… one day you travel, one day you’re back”
As musical pilgrimage, “Nothing’s in Vain” does reflect this honesty and inner harmony. The ballad style of “Mr Everywhere” evokes memories of his earlier work, but the words seem to sum up his current headspace, with phrases like “its impossible to know everything” and “calm down and don’t try to be all things to all people”.
N’Dour’s lyrical prowess enables him to address social and spiritual concerns with almost prophetic empathy. He describes music as “a powerful language, with which he consciously and unashamedly imparts a message: “I use the music to help – to propose something.”
This is evident in “As in a Mirror”, which explores his ‘cycles of life’ theme. Through the analogy of children he describes how the ‘past always comes back as a mirror”. Perhaps an even more poignant message is found in ‘Show your True Mettle”, an intensely percussive arrangement which warns against the use of ‘power as a weapon’, and suggests love as the only true power.
N’Dour sings in French, English and Wolof on the album, with a clear understanding of how form reflects content. Essentially, Youssou N’dour has always touched many and been understood – his vocal power and range transcend the limitations of language. With “Nothing’s in Vain”, his vision and musical arrangements continue to surpass cultural barriers. With his hopefulness, profound artistry and expansive outlook he is a huge spirit – a guide.
“Today I realize how something really little, from a different part of the world can be bigger – can concern a lot of people. And this is why “Nothing’s in Vain”, because its important to see and understand how something really little can be very big. People will pay attention and give him the possibility to tell what he really wants to tell.” – Youssou N’Dour