Today’s popular music in Senegal, known in the Wolof language as mbalax, developed as a blend of the country’s traditional griot percussion and praise-singing with the Afro-Cuban arrangements and flavors which made “the return trip” from the Caribbean to West Africa in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s and have flourished in West Africa ever since.

Beginning in the mid-1970s the resulting mix was modernized with a gloss of more complex indigenous Senegalese dance rhythms, roomy and melodic guitar and saxophone solos, chattering talking-drum soliloquies and, on occasion, Sufi-inspired Muslim religious chant. This created a new music which was at turns nostalgic, restrained and stately, or celebratory, explosively syncopated and indescribably funky.

Younger Senegalese musicians steeped in Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, James Brown, and the whole range of American jazz, soul music and rock which Senegal’s cosmopolitan capital, Dakar, had enthusiastically absorbed, were rediscovering their heritage and seeking out traditional performers, particularly singers and talking-drummers, to join their bands. (The griots—musicians, praise-singers and storyteller-historians—comprise a distinct hereditary caste in Wolof society and throughout West Africa.)

As it emerged from this period of fruitful musical turbulence, mbalax would eventually find in Youssou N’Dour the performer and songwriter who has had more to do with its shaping than any other individual.

Born in Dakar in 1959, N’Dour is a singer endowed with remarkable range and poise, and, as a composer, bandleader, and producer, with a prodigious musical intelligence.

The New York Times has described his voice as “an arresting tenor, deployed with prophetic authority,” one that “soars heavenward with passion and then wafts tenderly toward earth.” As a craftsman of an inimitable brand of ensemble music, N’Dour absorbs the entire diversity of the Senegalese musical spectrum in his work, often filtering his country’s musical heritage through a modernist lens of genre-defying rock or pop music from outside Senegalese culture.

Named “African Artist of the Century” by the English publication fRoots at the threshold of the year 2000, and to the “TIME 100” in 2007, TIME magazine’s annual list of “the hundred men and women whose power, talent, or moral example is transforming the world,” N’Dour has made mbalax famous throughout the world during nearly 30 years of recording and touring outside of Senegal with his band, the Super Étoile.


National Public Radio and Rolling Stone contributor Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock music critics, has consistently clamored for an ever-wider recognition of N’Dour’s gifts, variously calling N’Dour “the world’s greatest pop vocalist” and, most recently, “the world’s most consistent record maker this decade.” He has written that N’Dour is “the one African moving inexorably toward the world-pop fusion everyone else theorizes about.”

Peter Gabriel, whose duet with N’Dour on a song called “In Your Eyes” on Gabriel’s album So (Virgin/Geffen, 1985) defined a truly memorable moment in the history of rock, has proclaimed N’Dour, as a singer, simply “one of the best alive.” N’Dour solidified his leadership of the Super Étoile by 1979, having retained the essential personnel from earlier incarnations of the group, and he soon thereafter launched an international career with the help of a Senegalese taxi drivers’ fraternal association in France and a small circle of supporters in England. The beginnings in Dakar had been less auspicious.

As a willowy teenager, N’Dour had to resort to hustling pirate gigs in the parking lots outside certain of the city’s dance clubs to which he and his bandmates had uneasy or no access, his distinctive voice eventually earning him a reputation as a boy wonder and the occasional live amateur-hour slot on the National Radio.

As early as age twelve, N’Dour had also been performing at neighborhood religious-ceremonial occasions in the hard-bitten Medina section of the city where he grew up as the first-born child of a pious auto mechanic, Elimane N’Dour, and his wife, Ndèye Sokhna Mboup, herself of griot origin and an occasional performer in the ceremonies of the Medina neighborhoods. Today, N’Dour and the Super Étoile, acknowledged as Africa’s most popular live band, continue to play challenging Senegalese roots music with what the Los Angeles Times says is “a joyous precision.”

Responding to the introspective side of the group’s recording career, which has included such critically acclaimed major-label albums as Set (Virgin, 1990), Eyes Open (Sony Music, 1992) and The Guide (Sony Music, 1994), and Joko (Nonesuch, 2000), as well as the parallel release of dozens of local productions in Senegal, The Guardian (London) has called their music “the finest example yet of the meeting of African and Western music: wholesome, urgent, and thoughtful.”

Notwithstanding his international career, Youssou N’Dour’s rootedness in Senegalese music and storytelling remains the hallmark of his artistic personality. At once daring innovator and staunch protector of mbalax’s unique “Dakar overgroove,” N’Dour manages to maintain a sound that is both characteristically Senegalese and outward-looking, a synthesis of musical languages unmistakably nourished by the musical soil of his homeland. On the foundation of this highly personal sound, N’Dour remains a revered figure in his country and in the ever-growing worldwide Senegalese diaspora.


N’Dour continues to make his home in Dakar, but in Paris and New York once each year his Great African Ball, a post-midnight marathon dance party in the Senegalese style, he and the Super Étoile feature the kind of unhinged performances typical of the surreal Dakar nightclubs. In these annual soirées, N’Dour’s African immigrant patrons in Paris and New York become, for one night in each city, his co-stars, their celebratory verve finding expression in an extraordinary popular spectacle. As the New York Times has commented:

New York City doesn’t get any closer to Africa than at Youssou N’Dour’s annual Great African Ball. Instead of an abbreviated club or concert set, the Great African Ball presents what his band might play on its home territory, where club shows run without curfews. At previous concerts, the electrified griot songs of Mr. N’Dour’s band, The Super Étoile, stretched out and exulted in their six-beat groove; Mr. N’Dour unfurled all the glories of his impassioned, soaring voice. And tall, graceful Senegalese, onstage and in the audience, danced in bursts of flailing limbs, as if struck by lightning. Mr. N’Dour has thoughtfully internationalized his music through the years, but these concerts celebrate how close he remains to home.

The Youssou N’Dour Differential

N’Dour’s internationally released albums have always subtly negotiated the crossroads of tradition and modernism, and in all of them he has created daring syntheses of Senegalese music with other styles.

Critics and fans have long appreciated N’Dour’s alacrity in weaving disparate strands of Senegalese and other world musics into an infectiously uplifting personal sound. With 2002′s Nothing’s in Vain album, N’Dour made more liberal use of traditional acoustic instruments—like the 21-stringed kora (West African folk harp), the five-stringed xalam (Senegalese lute) or the single-stringed riti (Senegalese violin)—side-by-side with the more familiar complement of Senegalese percussion (sabar, djembé,and tama) and chattering guitars made famous by his previous recordings.

It’s clear to all his fans that  N’Dour is a confident musician, who has no qualms facing the hydra-headed critique of traditionalists at home, world music purists abroad and nostalgics and pop reductionists everywhere. Such uncanny insouciance—a resistance to musical conservatism of any stripe—only typifies who N’Dour is as an artist.

Religious expression in Senegal is so much a part of the fabric of everyday life as to be nearly indistinguishable from popular culture. The religious life of the Senegalese permeates their national economy, their politics, civil society, and family. With his release of the album Egypt  in 2004, Youssou N’Dour, ever the world music explorer, turned his attention homeward with a musical document of his introspective pilgrimage to the heartland of Sufi (Muslim mystical) culture in his own country.

The compositions on Egypt married Senegalese rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements with arrangements from the repertoire of Egyptian and Arab orchestral sound. Recording with traditional Senegalese instrumentalists and singers in Dakar and Fathy Salama’s sparkling Cairene orchestra—as if to throw into relief the historical linkages between the great seats of Islamic learning to the North and West Africa’s outposts of Sufi thought—N’Dour crafted this record into a vehicle for some of the most moving vocal performance of his career.

N’Dour explained to both the BBC and Al-Jazeera, “Egypt is an album which praises the tolerance of my religion, which has been badly misused by a certain ideology. At a time when there is a debate on Islam, the world needs to know how people are taking over this religion. Our religion has nothing to do with the violence, with terrorism.”

In 2005, Youssou N’Dour was awarded his first Grammy by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences in the United States for “Best Contemporary World Music Album”, for Egypt. N’Dour presented the debut North American performance of the music of Egypt on October 26, 2005, in Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium in New York, following an extensive slate of European and African performances, and thereafter performed this music in a prestigious run of another dozen concerts in symphony halls across the United States.

Film et al

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Youssou N’Dour made his long-awaited debut as a film actor in 2007 in Academy Award winner Michael Apted’s historical drama Amazing Grace. This film depicts the campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire two hundred years ago, with a focus on the efforts of the impassioned British parliamentarian William Wilberforce and those who rallied to his cause, including Olaudah Equiano, the self-made African merchant and author and former slave whom N’Dour portrays.

That year also saw the release of yet another daring creation by this artist who refuses to be constrained by his own past, while knowing how best to be nourished by it.

Rokku mi Rokka (Give and Take), according to Charlie Gillett, perhaps Britain’s most respected world music broadcaster, critic, and historian, “is a blissfully good album,” an “adventurous and extraordinary album [that] feels like a new pinnacle” in N’Dour’s career.

Rokku mi Rokka featured Bassekou Kouyate, an ngoni player from Mali and “a defining figure in modern West African music” in his own right, notably through his work with countrymen Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, and with African-American roots music legend Taj Mahal, and for his own critically acclaimed album Segu Blue (Out Here Records, 2007).

N’Dour said of Rokku mi Rokka: The music on this album has its roots in the north of our country, from the desert, from the Sahelian corridor, from parts of the country that border on Mali and Mauritania. People from those countries will know and understand this music as well as people who come from the center of Senegal,” he says. “Some people might think Senegalese music means only mbalax. But all my life, alongside my friends—Baaba Maal, Ismael Lo, and others—I have been saying that this is not the only music we have in Senegal. We have such a wide range of sounds and rhythms and colors. When it came to writing the songs for this album, I wanted to use different sounds.”

Life however, has changed rhythm for N’Dour in the last six years since releasing Rokku mi Rokka.

In 2007 he became a council member of the World Future Council.

In 2008, he joined the Fondation Chirac’s honour committee. The same year, Youssou N’Dour’s microfinance organization named Birima (Birima is also a song’s title) was launched with the collaboration of Benetton United Colors.

In 2009, he released his song “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)” under a Creative Commons license to help IntraHealth International in their IntraHealth Open campaign to bring open source health applications to Africa. The song was remixed by a variety of artists including Nas, Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Duncan Sheik to help raise money for the campaign.

At the beginning of 2012, he entered the race for the presidency of Senegal for the 2012 presidential election, competing against Abdoulaye Wade. However, he was disqualified from running in the election over the legitimacy of the signatures he had collected to endorse his campaign.

Then in April 2012 it was announced that N’dour has been appointed tourism and culture minister in the cabinet of new Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye and there he has remained, with rumours floating around of a possible 2014 album in production.

All in all, N’Dour is a complex man of Africa, a avid and genius artist, politician and social activist whose intense textures, songs and  have left an indelible mark on Africa and the world and have enriched us all in so many poly-rhythmic ways.



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