Born in Senegal’s capital Dakar, to a Wolof mother and a Serer father, Youssou N’Dour started out in music with The Star Band in the 1970s. Several members of the band would go on to form Orchestra Baobab, but N’Dour would take his striking tenor voice along a solo career path, helping along the way to develop a style of popular Senegalese music known in the Serer language as mbalax. It would mark the beginning of a journey which has brought N’Dour to prominence as one of the world’s best known African music stars.
Connected maternally to the griot caste, in 1979 N’Dour formed his own ensemble, Etoile de Dakar. Already immersed in differing musical traditions from his homeland and the wider west African region, N’Dour’s ears and mind were opening to a more global perspective. He would mix mbalax with everything from Cuban rumba to hip hop, jazz and soul on his way to his most famous collaboration, with Neneh Cherry on the 1994 worldwide hit 7 Seconds. He has also worked with such luminaries as Tracey Chapman, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, among many others. He wrote and performed the official 1998 FIFA World Cup song, La Cour des Grands, with Axelle Red, and would eventually set up his own recording studio and his own label, Jololi, which would see him develop as something of a businessman.
A decade on from 7 Seconds, his cross-cultural album Egypt won N’Dour his first Grammy Award. In short order afterwards he performed at three of the Live 8 concerts in a single day, taking to the stage alongside Dido in London, Paris and at the Eden Project. This year sees him as the subject of the film Retour á Gorée, a documentary road movie helmed by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, which follows the trail left by slaves and highlights the jazz music they invented. And now he has a new album, Rokku Mi Rokka, to talk about.
The title translates to Give And Take, and might encompass N’Dour’s approach to musical collaboration. It finds him ranging from his Wolof base to explore styles from northern Senegal, Mauritania and Mali, with a perceptible nod to the success of Touareg desert bluesmen Tinariwen. His old chums Orchestra Baobab sing on the tracks Xel and the affirmatory Baay Faal. Malian ngoni master and sometime Ali Farka Touré collaborator Bassekou Kouyate lends his talents to five tracks, including one of the album’s highlights Dabbaax. Cherry returns to the fray too, on the closing track Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling).
Resplendent in flowing robes in a hotel suite in central London, for context N’Dour first turns to the album’s award-winning predecessor. He describes Egypt as “a conversation between east Africa and west Africa”, one which highlighted N’Dour’s islamic faith as a means of conversational facilitation; the opening track is entitled Allah. “I spread the political vision of islam,” he says. “I think really all the things I’m doing, from the roots of my music, you can hear a lot of islamic influence because I am muslim, and the country where I’m doing everything, islam is big there.”
In contrast, Rokku Mi Rokka is “totally different. It explores the roots of different kinds of music we like in Africa, like reggae, blues, soul, great music; and the roots of all this music is Africa. This album mentions how Africa has a lot of things that are important but they don’t get valued from the western world, from what we bring musically and in culture and art is not enough. The value of African music, all this music, needs to be more.”
There’s an acknowledgement that the musical conversation in which Africa is involved is far from being a one-sided transaction. Hence the title. “We give from the roots of all this music, but we take also,” he says. “And what we have is very important, but you don’t know exactly how important, how powerful are the things when you have them. Other people from different places in the world bring back these things remind you what you have, and we take this.”
Bringing different musical styles, however ultimately related they are, together has led to the creation and use of the nebulous catch-all term ‘world music’. To describe his output in the Anglosphere thusly is less an insult than an inaccuracy, says N’Dour. “It’s not world music, it’s African music. But if you have the possibility to do two different things, this looks like a chance for me. I know where I am better, where I am more natural, and that’s my roots music, because of my background. But life is about trying things that make you passionate. Doing just one thing for 20 years… you might get bored.”
This goes some way to explaining why Cherry appears on the new album. 7 Seconds brought N’Dour to Cherry’s music style, he recalls, but “Wake Up is bringing her to my style, something totally different, to have a different experience for her. The content of this song, this kind of song, can talk to the world. It’s important.” The track is very much an outlier on the album, feeling rather tacked on, but there’s an undoubted sense that N’Dour’s passion for cross-continental communication comes from a good place – this is no mere attempt at moneyspinning.
“The content of this song, this kind of song, can talk to the world. It’s important.” – Youssou N’Dour on collaborative songs
Happily confessing his own western influences as including George Clinton and Prince, N’Dour has long recognised the importance of music as communication and as an agent of change, for his activism has never been far from his music. Before being appointed as a UN Goodwill Ambassador, he was instrumental in bringing internet cafes to Senegal, helping to connect a diverse diaspora. In 1985 he organised a concert calling for the release from prison of Nelson Mandela – his second album, released in 1986, was named after South Africa’s first post-apartheid president.
“This was really a question from my mother, she would ask ‘What is happening in South Africa?’” he recalls. “One day we were watching the news on TV about South Africa and I was explaining to her all this bullshit apartheid thing. The next day I decided to write a song to explain what was happening in South Africa to people. I think it helped a lot of people in my country to understand what was happening, and to know Mandela.” He has since met Mandela twice, though modestly bats away a question about what Mandela thought of his music.
More recently, he was keen that Live 8’s message, to increase international development budgets, was heard by G8 leaders convening at the Gleneagles summit. More than a thousand musicians performed at the concerts, which were held in the G8 nations and in South Africa. Did the great and good listen to the pleas? “Yeah definitely,” says N’Dour without hesitation. Indeed, the summit resulted in a promise to double 2004 levels of aid to poor nations, with half of the money to go to Africa. “But we have to follow and see how much they do the things they say,” cautions N’Dour, before pausing. “The inspiration was necessary.”
Widely known in Europe and something of a superstar in Africa, N’Dour has not yet met with such adulation in the world’s largest music market, the USA. “Promoting the album there is very slow,” he laments. “It seems really closed. The big question is why African music doesn’t touch black African-American people there. It seems to be the same for a lot of African musicians. We didn’t see the interest coming from African-Americans for music from Africa.” The rest of his audience, he senses, fractures along lines of origin. “White people are interested in the roots of the music, the local instruments, but the Africans love the modern way we play the music as expressed on modern instruments but played by Africans. It’s crazy.”
It’s easy to see why he might value collaborators, given all of this, for such figures can open new conversations. “Peter Gabriel is a reference and a door for the rest of the people and (people like him) make things credible,” he enthuses. The two collaborated on the track Shakin’ The Tree, which appears on his album The Lion, and N’Dour contributed vocals to several other Gabriel songs. “He is a big promoter of my music but he exchanges music, I have a great experience with him. I learn a lot of things from him and maybe he learns things from me.” But again, it’s not a one-way conversation: “And people know Peter Gabriel in Africa because of this collaboration too.”
Perhaps like us all, N’Dour hopes for purpose, and to leave something positive as a result of his music and his actions. Some 20 albums in to his singular career, does he have a mission still? “Everybody has a mission,” comes the reply. “When I meet a lot of young people who love my music or get my message, I hope I will leave something here in this world. I meet young African artists who are ready to deliver the same message. It gives hope to me for the future.”
Youssou N’Dour’s album Rokku Mi Rokka is out now through Nonesuch. Tour dates and further information can be found here.