Youssou N’Dour was born in Senegal to musician parents; he began performing at circumcisions and baptisms while still a child. His first single, “M’ba,” was released when he was thirteen; he became a radio star. By sixteen, with a high, sweet tenor that can cut to the bone, N’Dour was the featured vocalist with the Star Band de Dakar. In 1977, he led a walkout and formed Étoile de Dakar; playing an Africanized version of Cuban music, the new group developed into one of Senegal’s most influential dance bands. Étoile’s first album, Xalis, was a major hit, and the band moved to Paris, where it was reborn as the Super Étoile de Dakar in 1979. The new band based its sound on a Senegalese rhythmic style called mbalax, and electrified the audience at London’s African Nights festival in 1984. After seeing a Touré Kunda concert, N’Dour decided to take a stab at the pop market by using international rhythms, including rock and reggae. Peter Gabriel told the press that N’Dour’s Immigrés got him hooked on African rhythm, and had N’Dour sing on “In Your Eyes,” a track on his ’86 album, So. (That same year, N’Dour also played drums on Paul Simon’s Graceland.) N’Dour’s opening sets on Gabriel’s subsequent tour drew raves, as did their joint rendition of “In Your Eyes,” which became the climax of Gabriel’s set.
All of that gave a big boost to the release of N’Dour’s Anglo-American debut. Nelson Mandela is packed with solid mbalax jams like “N’Dobine,” “Samayaye,” “Wareff” and the title tune, all highlighted by exciting vocals that are supported by rippling layers of percussion, sharp horn charts and a propulsive bassline. The percussion break on “Nelson Mandela” is a particular standout. At the time, the cover of the Spinners’ “The Rubberband Man” sounded like it had been tacked onto the disc by the accounting department, but N’Dour’s subsequent crossover moves leave room for doubt.
Recorded a year earlier but released after Nelson Mandela in the US, Immigrés is less polished, but also more exciting. The short disc’s densely layered arrangements show off the combination of the Cuban, Arabic and African elements that make Senegalese music so unique. Even on “Pitche Mi,” the album’s sole ballad, the percussion sizzles.
On The Lion, N’Dour dips heavily into the pop sounds that plague his recent records. The title track sounds like mbalax meets the Go-Go’s, while “Old Tucson” a song about the museums N’Dour has visited on his world travels, is merely puzzling. Tracks like “Kocc Barma” and the moody “Macoy” are balanced by funk-heavy tunes like “The Truth” and “Shakin’ the Tree,” another duet with Gabriel. The song became a hit and a live staple for both artists; Gabriel also included the track, with redone vocals, on his anthology album, which he even named for the song.
N’Dour puts out at least three cassettes of new material a year for the Senegalese home market, items his British and American fans have to track down in specialty shops or mail order catalogues. (Music piracy also plays a part; an artist has to keep releasing material to keep ahead of those who produce cheap duplications of every cassette.) Set, which mixes traditional acoustic instruments, inspired drumming, driving electric bass and sharp, staccato horn lines, was recorded for local release; after it became a huge hit in Senegal, Virgin released it to the world — albeit with a bit of pop sweetening. In any case, Set is one of the best Afropop albums ever. The title song, driven by talking drums and timbales, extols brotherhood and international peace and became an anthem for disaffected Senegalese youth. “Sabar” and “Sinebar” show off the band’s relentless percussive chops; “Miyoko” has a slight reggae lilt, and “Xale (Our Young People)” mixes a cappella Senegalese singing with a European classical string section to good effect.
With Eyes Open (released on Spike Lee’s label), N’Dour began his crossover moves. Most tunes include refrains in English and/or French; the percussion is downplayed in favor of swooping fretless bass and rock-influenced guitars. Standout tracks include “No More” (a subtle acoustic ballad to Africa’s former colonial masters sung in English), “Live Television” (with a loping, almost ska beat), “Country Boy” (a funky African lament that’s a distant cousin to Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”) and the album’s two token African rhythm tracks, “Marie-Madeline La Saint-Louisienne” and “The Same,” a tribute to the continent’s influence on the world’s music.
The Guide finds N’Dour balancing on a tightrope between Africa and MTV. The preponderance of ballads would indicate that this is clearly aimed at Western ears, but the percussion (when it’s used) is more prominent. It’s slightly less patronizing than Eyes Open, but “7 Seconds,” N’Dour’s duet with dance floor diva Neneh Cherry, the African hip-hop of “How You Are” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” will make purists long for the days of Set and Immigrés. Recommendations: “Leaving (Dem),” a smooth African dance track; “Without a Smile (Same),” a jazzy ballad with sax by Branford Marsalis and a percussion track that suggests Brazilian afoxe rhythms; “Mame Bamba,” one of the few tracks with the kind of percussive energy that made N’Dour’s reputation; and “Tourista,” a tune that could have been written for the Drifters — had they been Senegalese.
Those dismayed by N’Dour’s crossover dreams will rejoice over Stern’s’ reissues of the best of Étoile de Dakar. The original recordings weren’t made under the best conditions, but the band’s fiery drumming, pounding basslines and N’Dour’s youthful, unrestrained vocals will curl your hair. The band was just finding its own voice when these tunes were laid down and their excitement infuses every note. Their rumba is a lot harder than the smooth soukous of Zaire; the drummers sound like they’re trying to drive the rhythm into the center of the earth, the singers wail with an almost religious ecstasy and the balance of Cuban and African elements is sublime. The percussive salvo that opens “Dom Sou Nare Bakh” on Absa Gueye will drop you in your tracks. The smooth calypso beat of “Tu Veras” sets up Badou N’Diate’s rippling guitar solo; by “Baye Wali,” you can hear the band beginning to find its own voice, the sound that was to become mbalax (“rhythm” in Wolof). On Thiapathioly, tracks originally recorded in 1980, Senegalese percussion slowly overwhelms the Cuban rhythms, creating a sound Dakar found irresistible. The title tune opens the disc with frantic talking drums set against the more Caribbean sound of the congas, and every subsequent track ups the rhythmic ante. By this time El Hadji Faye had joined N’Dour in the band’s front line; their vocal competition adds a whole other dimension to the sound.