In an industry that thrives on formula 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 his country of origin; and it borders the impossible if he sings in a language few Westerners can understand.
And it is precisely these contradictions that have served as the under-lying impetus of Youssou N’dour’s 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 consciously exploring the link between contrasts. While embracing his traditional West African roots he simultaneously interprets contemporary sensibility.
This is again reflected in his life. Indeed, 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 in his home town, Dakar. 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 2000 release, Joko (The Link), was a largely collaborative and highly crossover album that received mixed responses. Purists felt he’d sold out to commercial pressures. Sceptics found it difficult to understand how the opening track could assert the message that, “If you don’t know where you’re heading anymore go back to where you’ve come from.”
It’s an attitude that seems more appropriate when listening to his new album.
Nothing’s in Vain is poetic and uncompromising, a more authentic experience, suggesting a return to his African roots. He insists, however, it is a departure, since it is the first time he has used such an array of traditional Senegalese instruments. And instead of interpreting traditional songs, he uses the kora (folk harp), xalam (five-string lute) and riti (one-string violin) in fresh compositions with contemporary arrangements.
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” that 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.
It was through his griot mother, renowned in their district for her exquisite voice, that he continued the musical lineage. By birthright alone griots are oral or musical historians.
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”. So he believes in an exciting meeting of the old and the new in which the griots, as inherent storytellers, interpret and comment on real experience.
For an artist in a position of power, responsibilities are great. In rising to expectation N’dour goes back to his past — to his mother for counsel.
N’dour further honours this connection by dedicating Nothing’s in Vain to his mother. Through the use of ancient instruments, easily recognisable to her, he presents universal themes with contemporary arrangements. His mother represents “love and women”, he says, “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). Now known as Super Etoile, they remain Senegal’s leading group.
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 trailblazing initiated his first European performances.
This exposure led N’dour to the likes of Peter Gabriel, the Realworld music mogul, who legitimised indigenous music through the new category “world music”. Gabriel described his first encounter with N’dour in a small London club in 1984. He spoke of the voice that “sent shivers down my spine” and to date still proclaims him as “one of the best singers alive”. This meeting led to their duet In Your Eyes on Gabriel’s 1985 album So.
So sparked the first of N’dour’s ongoing cross-cultural collaborations. He has subsequently recorded with artists as diverse as Paul Simon, Riuchi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Neneh Cherry, Wyclef Jean and Sting.
Touring the world with Gabriel, N’dour exposed the musical universe to Mbalax, the percussion-driven, seven-beat rhythmic style of Super Etoile de Dakar.
“These kinds of connections make things easier for people to understand. Music is today one,” N’dour says of the growing unity in musical artistry.
For N’dour the future remains unpredictable, but he believes this timeless project reflects exactly where he is now.
And where he is, is on the world stage. This is why he invited the highest calibre of African 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,” N’dour says.
As a musical pilgrimage, Nothing’s in Vain reflects honesty and inner harmony. The ballad style of the track Mr Everywhere evokes memories of his earlier work, but the words seem to sum up his current headspace, with phrases like “it’s impossible to know everything”, so “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 the song As in a Mirror, which explores his theme of the cycles of life. 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 that warns against the use of “power as a weapon”.
Speaking of his humble beginnings and his rise to fame, N’dour says, “Today I realise how something really little from a different part of the world can be bigger, can concern a lot of people.
“And this is why I believe Nothing’s in Vain.”