One song composed by Youssou N'Dour, "Wiri Wiri," contains this line: "If you don't know where you're heading anymore, go back to where you came from."
Now 45, Youssou N'Dour has been a star at home, in Dakar, Senegal, for more than half his life. He has traveled widely during the past two decades, earning acclaim in Europe and the United States. But N'Dour always returns to Dakar. He continues to live there. And his music, however far and wide it has ranged in style and in reach, still speaks first and foremost of home.
This month, Carnegie Hall's Perspectives will showcase the voice and the vision of N'Dour in unprecedented fashion‹with four concerts that shed light on how N'Dour's music has drawn from Senegalese tradition and how it has sparked new innovations by younger artists.
N'Dour's father is an auto mechanic, his mother descended from a line of griots, the traditional singers and storytellers who have long served as the culture's oral historians. Ever since N'Dour's rise to musical prominence‹first through local religious ceremonies and by hustling gigs outside popular Dakar dance clubs, then on radio amateur hours, and finally, on the world stage‹he has developed a strikingly original sound that still communicates the stories of his heritage.
N'Dour's sinewy tenor, his dazzling vocal melismas, and his urgent, engaging lyrics (mostly concerning social responsibility and cultural memory) have become the face of mbalax, the popular Senegalese music that blends centuries-old praise-singing tradition and percussion, Afro-Cuban arrangements, and guitar-based Western pop. The band N'Dour has led since 1979, The Super Étoile, has held sway over Senegalese fans since its formation. They are widely considered to be the most exciting African band to hear in concert‹a blend of rhythm and voice that can be appreciated without translation.
Originally, N'Dour had been churning out cassettes on Jololi, his Dakar-specific label, consistently wowing the home crowd. Soon he captured the ear of a much broader audience, in part due to his singing on Peter Gabriel's hit "In Your Eyes." N'Dour's 1990 release, Set, had some folks talking about N'Dour as the "next Bob Marley," a purveyor of the next roots music to sweep across the globe. Others saw him as the good-looking poster boy for a nascent "world music" wave. In fact, he was neither.
"My music is like a spinning ball," N'Dour says. "It can turn in one direction, and then it comes back to its origins."
N'Dour's music is the perfect amalgam of old and new, indigenous and foreign. He sings mostly in his native Wolof, with an occasional chorus in French. The instruments on his recordings have ranged from talking drum (a staple of Senegalese music) to drum loops and synthesizers. The Super Étoile's lead guitarist, Jimi Mbaye, plays a Fender Stratocaster guitar but occasionally plucks in a style that sounds more like a xalam, the Senegalese folk guitar. The music's jumpy six-beat rhythms and soaring, syncopated vocals simultaneously evoke ancient call-and-response refrains as well as contemporary calls to the dance floor. N'Dour's lyrics are heartfelt and traditional, his songs about basic things‹the need for hard work, respect for women, love of God and of fellow humans‹and about more complicated issues, such as political struggles over electrical service in Dakar, or the need to remain connected to one's home. For instance, his enduringly popular album Set sparked a social movement at home when it was first released. Meaning "clean" or "pure" in his native Wolof, Set was a motivating cry for young Senegalese to clean up their environment and to demand "transparency" in politics and business.
N'Dour wants to motivate Western listeners in a different way. "In spite of the images that one knows about Africa, the economic poverty," he says, "there's a joy to living and a happiness in community, living together, in community life, which may be missing here in America. I think America can learn from that."
N'Dour's career, especially of late, is filled with potent messages for Americans to process. It would be difficult to think of a contemporary musician who blends the personal and the political, the secular and the sacred, with greater depth and sensitivity.
In the spring of 2003, N'Dour canceled what would have been the most ambitious U.S. tour of his career, in protest of the impending American invasion of Iraq. The statement he issued to the press was heartfelt and nuanced. "I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived‹rightly or wrongly‹as support for this policy."
"I know that I'm not Bruce Springsteen," N'Dour said later. "But it was a symbolic statement that I wanted to make."
N'Dour's Perspectives begins with three concerts in Zankel Hall. On October 23, Night Sky in Sine Saloum will explore the griot tradition N'Dour was born into, and features the first U.S. performances by the standard-bearing Samba Diabaré Samb and Yandé Codou Sène. The Fresh Face of African Music (October 24) presents the younger Senegalese artist Julia Sarr. On October 25, The Story of Mbalax will be told through an evening with N'Dour's signature ensemble, The Super Étoile.
The final Perspectives event on October 26 offers the U.S. premiere of N'Dour's collaboration with the Fathy Salama Orchestra from Cairo. Beautiful as this music sounds, it should also be heard as a sublime and profound statement for a troubled time. Senegalese Islam is largely Sufi. Through original songs, N'Dour celebrates the caliphs, saints, and sages of his Sufi faith, he says, "in order to praise the tolerance of my often misunderstood religion." The project began as a private thing, a recording N'Dour made for his friends and family to celebrate his faith and to combine Senegalese musical elements with the ouds, violins, and flutes that N'Dour remembered from the recordings of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, which his father used to play. With Egypt, N'Dour builds a bridge from sub-Saharan Africa to the continent's Arabic north, and a corrective pronouncement about Islam directed at the whole world.
For four consecutive nights, one of the world's greatest singers and songwriters will reveal himself to a New York audience in all his roles: praise singer, storyteller, pop star, devout Muslim, music impresario, and cultural ambassador. In the process, Youssou N'Dour will bring us a few steps closer to his beloved Senegal in all its beautiful complexity.
Larry Blumenfeld writes about music and culture for the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and other publications. He is editor-at-large of Jazziz magazine.