Youssou N’dour – Griot For The 21st Century

Youssou N'Dour
The unmistakable voice of Youssou N’dour, Senegal’s most successful export, comes down the line from Paris, patiently explaining the details of his unusual life and the release of his first album in over five years, “Joko”. With his command of the English language greatly improved since his last visit to Australia in ’92 for the inaugural Womadelaide Festival, N’dour is relaxed and expansive, carefully choosing his words, and remarkably free of the self-obsession that one often expects from major international stars. But then Youssou N’dour has always stood apart from the crowd.

Born in Dakar in 1959 N’dour, unlike many West African artists, does comes from a griot family on his mother’s side, the traditional keepers of the country’s oral history. Steeped in music from an early age, he gave his first public performance at the age of 12 and later studied music theory at Dakar’s Ecole des Arts. It was natural for him to gravitate to the city’s thriving club scene in the mid-70s, where he quickly gained the country’s attention as the new precocious young singer with the Star Band, already a Senegalese institution for over 15 years. By the early 80s, N’dour was West Africa’s biggest name musician and he took advantage of his popularity by forming his own band, Super Etoile, taking with him his longtime talking drum (tama) player Assane Thiam. Singing predominately in his native language, Wolof, with a smattering of French and English lyrics, he addressed topical issues familiar to his listeners, as well as emotive love songs and the more traditional historical stories. He also championed a new rhythmic style known as mbalax, which set the dance floors of Dakar alight.

He began touring Europe in ’83, penning his first international hit “Immigres” concerning the thousands of African migrants living in Paris and elsewhere, and coming to the attention of Peter Gabriel. “The thing that amazed me was his voice, like liquid silver”, said Gabriel at the time. “I felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck”. His involvement with Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and others on Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now!” tour in ’88 gave him further international credibility, and his duet single with Gabriel, “Shakin’ The Tree”, received worldwide airplay. A short contract with Virgin Records produced the lacklustre “The Lion” in ’89, and the far better “Set” in ’90. He moved over to American film director Spike Lee’s fledgling “40 Acres And A Mule” label (through Columbia/Sony) in ‘92 for the gorgeous “Eyes Open”, and achieved his biggest chart success with ‘94’s “The Guide (Wommat)”, which spawned the massive hit duet single alongside Neneh Cherry, “Seven Seconds”.

In ’93 N’dour was appointed a special UNICEF ambassador, giving benefit concerts to raise awareness of the growing AIDS epidemic in Africa, especially among children. He also opened his own state-of-the-art Xippi Studio in Dakar, where he’s produced two fine albums for fellow Senegalese singer, Cheikh Lo, amongst others. He’s continued to tour regularly with Super Etoile, still one of the very best African bands in the business, featuring Jimmy Mbaye on guitar, Habib Faye on bass, and Thiam on tama.

Relatively quiet on the international scene for the last few years, N’dour has now returned with “Joko”. The new album reunites him with both Gabriel and Sting, and features shared production duties between England’s Johnny Dollar, Frenchmen Jean-Phillipe Rykiel and George Acogny and the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean from New York, who also contributes a couple of righteous raps.

Youssou, in the early 90s you released three albums, but until this new album, there’s been nothing
since “The Guide (Wommat)”. Was it time to take a break for a while over the last few years?

No, firstly I toured everywhere to support that last album and then I went back to Africa to do lots of things. I’ve been doing soundtracks and playing at clubs in Dakar, Abidjan, all over Africa, it’s been a busy time. I’ve also been doing a lot of production at my studio, exposing other African talent to the world. When you make an album it’s something that you have to wait for until you’re really ready.

The name “Joko”, that translates as “Hope”, is that correct?

Yeah, hope and connection between sound, between village and town, between people.

So often when the rest of the world looks at Africa, especially through the eyes of the nightly news, we see calamity and strife. We see wars, famine, floods and disease. Is there too much attention paid to these stories and not enough to the positive ones? Where do you see the hope that you sing about?

Well the floods in Mozambique, this is something natural. Africa doesn’t really need it, but it’s coming from God. Africa has plenty of positive things that I want to show the world. The Western image of Africa, disasters, war, AIDS, those things definitely exist, but there are always two sides of life and I want to concentrate on the positive things that are happening.

Despite all the production work you’ve been doing, when it came to producing “Joko”, you chose a number of other producers to come in on different tracks. We’re you trying for an album that had a wide variety of different sounds?

Yeah. Over the last ten years, I’ve travelled a lot, met a lot of different people, and I had it in my mind to connect my music with many other kinds. I need to join with other producers with different experience to help me make my message.

Was the travelling you speak of part of your musical touring over the last few years, or just travelling on your own?

Sometimes after I’ve been playing, the other musicians would leave and I’d stay on for a couple of days. Some places I just go by myself to listen to the music, feel the vibe. It’s funny because I travel a lot, I go far and when I’m very far away I think of home, I think of the sound of the village. The more you go far, the more you feel close to home.

I know that when you are home in Senegal because of your notoriety it’s sometimes difficult for you to go out without being recognised. Do you enjoy the anonymous nature of travelling to places where you’re not hassled as much?

Yes definitely! I like Senegal, it’s my place, but sometimes it gets too much for me, too much pressure. When I go to places where no one recognises me I feel free. I walk, I do my things, it’s different. I like the two ways, I like to leave Senegal, but it also always makes me think about home.

I hear quite a bit of acoustic guitar on the new album. You were trying to bring that sound to the fore?

Yes, for this album I used a lot of acoustic guitar, because the sound is closer to the percussion. The rhythms I use are coming from the south of Senegal, Casamance, traditional rhythms, and they blend well with the percussive way that the acoustic guitar can be played.

You’ve used some new and some old friends on the album, including a new vocal duet with Peter Gabriel. You two seemed to have remained close over the years.

Peter has a great respect for my music and music coming from different places, and he’s very involved with that connection. If you listen to his music today you hear elements coming from Asia, from Africa. It’s a pleasure for me to do something new with him. For this album I was trying to recreate my journeys, my travelling, and that always includes Peter Gabriel. I give him something and he gives me something, it’s great.

Gabriel of course is an exception because of his admirable work setting up the WOMAD organization and his Real World label, but do you ever have a problem with Western musicians using African influences, or indeed using African musicians, in order to take commercial advantage of the popularity of World music?

I don’t think so. Some people say, “They’re using our music”, but no one says how African music itself has also been influenced by Western ways. It’s certainly influenced mine. For myself I don’t mind if someone uses our music. They usually just check it in order to have something different for awhile and then on their next album they just leave it out and go on to something else.

The Western influence on your own music is obvious on the new album with your cover version of the old Smokey Robinson hit, “Don’t Look Back”. That was a bit of a surprise.

Yeah, in the past I used to buy a lot of those Temptations sort of things, the Motown vibe. I think that time was really very creative. When I met Wyclef Jean and we were talking about doing a cover, I just said that “Don’t Look Back” was one of my favourites. When I listen to old soul music, black music, I think that sort of music left Africa in the slavery period and I feel part of it. For me even something like Latino music feels very natural.

Wyclef has quite an influence on the album even though he only produces a few tracks. Where did you meet up with him?

I met Wyclef about two years ago in London. I just told him how much I liked his work with the Fugees. I thought their last album was really fantastic. He said that he really liked one of my songs and I thought that he meant “Seven Seconds”, but he said, “No, “Birima”. Now “Birima” had already been released in Senegal three years ago and he had heard it in Paris, and he really wanted us to do something together, so we remixed that song first.

Can you tell us a little about the story of “Birima”? I believe he was a young Senegalese king?

That’s right. In Kaolack in the centre of Senegal this king had the power. He was a little different and used to bring the griots together to sing a certain form of traditional song, and I’m a big fan of this kind of singing. This was when griots played a really big role in the traditional society. Birima brought them all together. I’m not really a singles artist, I think more of the whole album, but the music companies think that way, so we’ve done a new video for “Birima” and I’m proud to have it as a single.

Despite thinking of the songs in an album context, on the last album you had a huge success worldwide singing with Neneh Cherry on “Seven Seconds”. Did its incredible success surprise you, and given your long career does it bother you that such a commercial song is the one that most people know you for now?

“Seven Seconds” success was not something I was expecting. I think of it as a big door for the rest of my music. Neneh and I were really happy to do it. When it was really big everywhere though I was telling everybody, “Hey, hey, wait, I’m not someone just arriving, I’ve already had a career”, but now I just think of it as an opportunity to get people to listen to all my other music.

Do you ever feel that there’s a danger in watering down the traditional sound in favour of having a big commercial success?

Barriers mean that people are trying to go further. Every music has an influence from everywhere else. Some Western people think that African music is something pure and exotic and if we try to do something different, they think it’s worthless. An African is just a person. I travel a lot and I know how to write a universal song, a pop song. Sometimes I feel like writing something modern, other times I feel like staying closer to my traditional. It’s the way to keep the passion for music that I have, the passion that I really want to give. If I have to stay with only one style it’s going to be difficult for me. I try each time to keep it exciting.

You used the same production team from “Seven Seconds” on the new song “Don’t Walk Away”, which is a duet with Sting. That’s another old friendship, isn’t it?

Yeah, we met in ’88 on the Amnesty tour. I was a big fan of the Police, because I thought they were the pop connection to reggae. On the Amnesty tour we use to try and sing higher than each other on some parts, and it was a really funny time. So when I was writing this new song I heard his voice in my head and I just called him, and he was happy to do it. With the producers, after “Seven Seconds” I spent a lot of time with Johnny Dollar and he’s a great musician and he understands the way I like to work, so I used him again.

The track that caught my ear immediately is the beautifully expansive “Yama”. That’s a song about
traditional African women?

I was thinking about the story of the village and that song celebrates all African women, the role that they play in village life. Think about with the kids, think about the food, everything. “Yama” is just a name to symbolise the woman in Africa, the role they play in a traditional way, and also the way they try today to be emancipated.

Has your great Super Etoile Band changed any members in the last few years?

I’ve kept most of them. I changed only two musicians. We’ve learned a lot of things together. I feel that when we’re travelling it’s like a family travelling. They’re really talented and they still like my music and my direction.

I remember when you were out here in ’92 for Womadelaide there were two African bands that year, yours and Remmy Ongala’s from Tanzania. Two very different bands. Remmy’s band was loose, fun and crazy, but Super Etoile was one of the most impressive, disciplined, unified and experienced groups I’d ever seen.

Yeah, we look like a team. We have a lot of experience. I think music for us is spiritual firstly. We are like ambassadors playing for our continent and the way we do it is important. To show the world a different image from Africa.

Speaking of ambassador work, are you still involved in your role with UNICEF?

Yeah I still work with them. It’s great. I think music is power. It’s a gift from God and we can use it to support justice and looking around to amplify the work of UNICEF or Amnesty International or Jubilee 2000 or something like that. I’m really someone who wants to move forward, more than just playing music or staying at home.

Youssou, last year your countryman and fellow singer Baaba Maal was out in Australia and he told me about the unusual social role that both you and he are accorded in Senegal these days. In the city it seems as though you’ve taken on part of the role that in a traditional village would belong to the Chief. Baaba said that you both have people lining up outside your houses on designated days, in order to petition your help for individual personal projects, to ask advise, to ask for financial assistance and to facilitate connections to the government or other important people. Is that essentially correct?

Yes. When I’m in Senegal we have the time to talk to people. It’s mostly social things, to help them. I think the role of musicians, artists is definitely changed now. The view people have of us is publicly different. The music and work we do now is 50% for us and 50% is for the people. It gives us a lot of background, a lot of culture, and we use it sometimes to help the people.

So the traditional griot’s role from past centuries, as an entertainer and historian, has turned into a wider one with more social responsibilities?

The traditional role is still here, but my generation has changed the role of musicians. Sometimes I think we look like a much more modern griot. Modern griot means people come to talk to you about the modern society, about giving them money, they pray, they believe in you, but you know, they’re wanting something from you. It’s become something we do.

You close the new album with a heartfelt song called “New Africa”, where you sing about a possible future Africa that has no borders. One nation, one continent. Do you see this as a realistic goal or is this concept just a dream that you have?

I think it’s more a beautiful dream. I’m not trying to resolve all the problems, I just propose my way, the way I’d like it to happen. Maybe it’s just a dream but maybe one day the dream will come true.

Author: Seth Jordan