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.” In 2004, Rolling Stone described him as, “perhaps the most famous singer alive” in Senegal and much of Africa. He was named “African Artist of the Century” by the English publication Folk Roots at the threshold of the year 2000, and was a part of 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.” 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 his album, ‘Egypt’. The Guardian (London) has called his music “The finest example yet of the meeting of African and Western music: wholesome, urgent, and thoughtful.”
Roi de Mbalax*, ‘The King of Mbalax’ Youssou N’Dour [born October 1959 in Medina, Dakar] is a Senegalese Singer, Percussionist, Songwriter, Composer, occasional Actor, Businessman, Social Activist and a Politician. Born to a ‘griot*’ family, he started performing and singing at the age of 12 at religious-ceremonial occasions. So prodigious was his musical ability that at the age of 19, he was performing regularly with Star Band de Dakar, Dakar’s most popular group during the early 1970s. His early days in Dakar were not exactly promising. As a teenager, N’Dour had to resort to hustling semi-legal shows in the parking lots outside certain of the city’s dance clubs to which he and his bandmates had little or no access. His amazing voice eventually earned him a reputation as a boy-wonder, and the occasional live amateur-hour slot on National Radio. N’Dour took over the leadership of the band barely two years later and renamed it Super Etoile de Dakar. Today, N’Dour and the Super Étoile have been acknowledged as Africa’s most popular live band.
N’Dour pioneered a style of popular Senegalese music known in the Serer language as ‘Mbalax’. In the 1980s he developed a unique sound with his ultimate group, Super Étoile de Dakar featuring Jimi Mbaye on guitar, bassist Habib Faye, and Tama (talking drum) player Assane Thiam. His mix of traditional Senegalese Mbalax with eclectic influences ranging from Cuban rumba to hip hop, jazz and soul won him an international fan base of millions.
N’Dour was introduced to the Western audience when Peter Gabriel had him appear on his ‘So’ album (in 1986) and then took N’Dour and The Super Etoile de Dakar on the road with him in a subsequent world tour where they opened for him. N’Dour cemented his reputation in 1989, when he released his first internationally distributed album, ‘The Lion’, which included a tune, “Shaking the Tree,” that he co-wrote with Gabriel. Upon signing with Spike Lee’s Columbia-distributed 40 Acres & a Mule label, N’Dour scored a Grammy nomination in 1991 with his first effort for the label, ‘Eyes Open’.
In the West, N’Dour has collaborated with Peter Gabriel, Axelle Red, Sting, Alan Stivell, Bran Van 3000, Neneh Cherry, Wyclef Jean, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Branford Marsalis, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Dido and others. He wrote and performed the official anthem of the 1998 FIFA World Cup with Axelle Red “La Cour des Grands.” Some of his musicology include, Bitim Rew (1984)Nelson Mandela (1986)Immigrés (1988The Lion (1989)Set (1990)Eyes Open (1992)The Guide (Wommat) (1994)Youssou N’Dour and His Friends (2002)Kirikou (2004)Egypt (2004)Alsaama Day (2007)Rokku Mi Rokka (2007) — #30 in Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Albums of 2007.Special Fin D’annee : Salegne-Salegne (2009)Dakar – Kingston (2010)Mbalakh Dafay Wakh (2011).
Described time and time again as one of Africa’s greatest Musicians, N’Dour’s work absorbs the entire Senegalese musical spectrum, mingled with modern rock or pop music from outside the Senegalese culture. A sporadic actor, N’dour has featured in Amazing Grace (2006) where he acted as Olaudah Equiano; A central figure in the abolitionist movement in Great Britain. The award winning ‘Retour à Gorée ‘(2007) where he acted as himself, journeying from the island of Gorée to the USA and back, exploring the origins of jazz, which go back to the era of slave trade in Africa. Youssou N´Dour: I Bring What I Love (2008) where he acted as himself, detailing the recording of his award winning Egypt album and its repercussions.
Quite apart or because of his tremendous musical success, N’Dour became a powerful social icon in Senegal. In 1985, he organized a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela. He was a featured performer in the 1988 worldwide Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour collaborating with Lou Reed on a version of the Peter Gabriel song ‘Biko’. He worked with the United Nations and UNICEF, and was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on 16 October 2000.
N’Dour founded Project Joko to open internet cafés in Africa and to connect Senegalese communities around the world. He appeared in a joint Spain-Senegal ad campaign to inform the African public about the dramatic consequences of illegal immigration. 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.
His popularity and desire to positively affect the lives of his country-men may have informed his decision to run for the presidential seat in Senegal in 2012. He was however disqualified but was appointed Minister of Tourism and Culture by the new President, Macky Sall. Also an entrepreneur, N’Dour opened his recording studio in 1991, and by 1995, he had launched his own record label, Jololi. He is the proprietor of L’Observateur, one of the most-circulated Newspapers in Senegal, the radio station RFM (Radio Future Medias) and the TV channel TFM.
Notwithstanding his international cachet, N’Dour remains embedded in Senegalese music and the griot ways of his mother. This synergy has produced a sound which though ever evolving, remains his unique brand and retains his musical signature.
In 2011, N’Dour was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in Music from Yale University.
N’Dour continues to make his home in Dakar, but in Paris and New York he holds a Great African Ball annually; a post-midnight marathon dance party in the Senegalese style, where he and the Super Étoile feature off-the-hook performances typical of the fantastic Dakar nightclubs.
Youssou N’Dour the musician and politician reminds us that persistence pays. Success may not happen overnight, but it will happen, someday.
*Mbalax- Popular music in Senegal, which is an uptempo blend of Senegalese [griot], Caribbean, and pop rhythms .
*Griots—musicians, praise-singers and storyteller-historians—comprise a distinct hereditary caste in Wolof society and throughout West Africa.)