Jim Carroll

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Archive: Youssou N’Dour

It’s not every day that one of your past interviewees decides to stand for president of his country, but I suppose Youssou N’Dour could never be regarded as your typical interviewee to begin with. His decision to challenge Senegal’s incumbent …

Wed, Jan 4, 2012, 09:25


It’s not every day that one of your past interviewees decides to stand for president of his country, but I suppose Youssou N’Dour could never be regarded as your typical interviewee to begin with. His decision to challenge Senegal’s incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade in elections next month won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed his career’s many twists and turns, which has seen him move from worldwide crossover hits (“Seven Seconds” with Neneh Cherry) to political activist and media mogul at home with his TFM radio and television stations. Back in 2002, I spoke to him around the time of the release of his fantastic “Nothing’s In Vain” album and, yes, politics was on the agenda even then.

“They did in 15 days what I’ve spent 15 years trying to do” chuckles Youssou N’Dour about the exploits of those dashing Senegalese Lions in this summer’s World Cup. As they splattered oeuf on the collective face of French football and added significant merriment to the tournament, the on-field exploits of El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and friends also focused attention on life in west Africa. “It was fantastic for Senegal, it made the country feel good about itself.”

N’Dour knows all about creating a feel-good factor. One of world music’s most endearing artists, he has been persuading audiences to try his Senegalese sounds for size since the early 1980s. By expanding and developing the music of his Wolof people (and investing the rhythms of the tama drum with a greater importance than hithertofore), N’Dour was one of the first African musicians to enjoy international recognition and success. Thanks to crossover hits like “Seven Seconds” (a duet with Nenah Cherry) and his participation in the 1988 Amnesty International world tour alongside Peter Gabriel, U2, Bruce Sprinsteen and Tracy Chapman, N’Dour now holds a statesman-like presence on the world music stage.

Yet for all these kudos, there’s little doubt that the music of this griot has suffered from a creative hiatus over recent years. With western record companies seeking quick returns on their investment in the shape of another “Seven Seconds” and a fanatical audience at home waiting for his latest mbalax masterpiece, N’Dour has had to serve two masters. What appears under his name in record stores in Dublin or London is completely different in sound and scope to what you can buy from cassette stalls on the pavements of Dakar. And, more’s the pity, the raw, rugged and interesting music was not for export.

The recent release of “Nothing’s In Vain” may change this situation somewhat. The first product of his new relationship with the Nonesuch label, it sees N’Dour using a rich and varied canvas of traditional Senegalese instruments as the basis for his songs. While there are a few bum notes (especially those songs he sings in English), the album does sound particularly majestic alongside more recent releases.

The album also goes some way towards solving the vexed issue of supplying two different marketplaces. “I think people are now ready for one Youssou N’Dour sound” he explains. “I think they understand what I am doing and it is not necessary any longer to do two records. I wanted to do an album based around traditional instruments and I knew I had access to the musicians who could bring the best out of this idea. In Africa, we have great musicians but they don’t always have the opportunity to play on a recording session.

“I don’t think this is the end of it because there’s still a lot of things we can do around traditional music. This is the first time I have worked this closely with these sort of instruments and it was really interesting. The sound of these instruments and the space they give my voice is fascinating. I was really happy with it and do want to persist with this style. I don’t know what will happen next time out – I like surprises (laughs) – but I’d like to stick with this sound.”

He’s extremely happy with approach and enthusiasm of his new label, highly critical factors when you consider the economic aspects of putting an act like N’Dour on the road. “I felt Nonesuch understood how I was working and where I was coming from” he says. “They talked about the huge possibilities for me to make this kind of music and express myself in this way. I’m not saying that I did something wrong before but this seemed the right way for me. A lot of record labels just don’t understand musicians like me. They want a modern vibe and try to push you in that way. It’s wrong because I’m not a hit singer artist, I’m an album artist.”

Like many other African musicians of his generation, N’Dour believes that a strong domestic industry is the only way forward. “I have said this before but the solution really lies in Africa. We should have our own labels and people who can work with artists to help them do what they want to do. I suppose I am meeting my responsibility in some way with the Xippi recording studio and Thiossane nightclub in Dakar because they are helping other musicians. Also when a record label like Nonesuch promotes me around the world, I can use that opportunity to present other artists from Senegal that I think people should hear.”

Certainly, there seems to be an energetic resurgence in African music and one which is not confined as before to specific cities or areas. “There is a different vibe in Africa than what was there in the past” N’Dour believes. “Today, it’s not just that there’s great music in west Africa, there’s great music in every country of the continent. Dakar is still a great centre for music but the same can be said about other African cities too. Western audiences can see and appreciate this too.”

As an astute commentator and observer of social and political changes at home, N’Dour believes Africans are changing on other levels too. “Oh, there has been a huge change in people, young people especially. They have started to question things a lot more, they’re not prepared to put up with what’s already there if a change could make things better. When governments promise change and then don’t deliver, people start to get angry about it. There’s been a lot of big ideas but very few practical things have actually happened.”

Besides his own releases and tours, N’Dour plays an active role in other Senegalese musical projects. Thanks to his recording studio, he’s has a keen understanding of new street sounds and movements. “At the beginning, the hip-hop community were looking to the United States to see what was happening there and they were copying it. Today, they realise they can work with music a lot closer to home. I think they are realising that what we did with mbalax is something they can take onboard too and I’m sure there are going to be a lot of collaborations between the two camps in the future.”

He also co-produced Orchestra Baobab’s comeback album, a pleasing state of affairs for both parties given N’Dour’s rather innocent involvment in their original demise. “When I started my career, it was at the time that Orchestra Baobab came to an end. I was really sad because they were one of my favourite bands so the chance to produce their album with Nick Gold made me really happy”.

Just as with “Specialist In All Styles” for the Baobabs, “Nothing’s In Vain” marks a new start for N’Dour and one he’s keen to make the most of. With a Dublin date in the offing this month, the time could well be right for the rebirth of Youssou N’Dour.

© 2002 The Irish Times