A sonic treasure out of Africa: Youssou N’Dour

Boston Globe, December 8, 2007

He’s known on a first-name basis – Youssou – not just across Africa, but around the world, which is remarkable when you think about it, when you consider that Youssou N’Dour emerged in the early 1980s as just another African bandleader, wildly talented yet from a small country at the margins of the global economy, singing in Wolof, an interesting-sounding language but one understood by few outside Senegal.

Now, N’Dour, who plays a sold-out show Monday night at the Somerville Theatre at the tail end of a North American tour, is far more than simply the most famous export of a country that he’s helped to punch well more than its weight in the cultural marketplace. He’s an international treasure, an activist for causes that range from international religious understanding to the fight against malaria, and a promoter of new artists.

And his own work, exemplified by his newest album, “Rokku Mi Rokka,” and its 2005 predecessor, “Egypt,” is as fresh and searching as it has been in years. “Egypt” was a devotional album with swing, an exploration of the mystical Sufi traditions at the heart of Senegalese Islam and the trans-Saharan exchanges that brought them there. The new record takes N’Dour into the folk music of the north of Senegal, at the confines of Mali and Mauritania, a region where he senses most keenly the ancestral roots of the great black musical forms of the New World.

“`Rokku Mi Rokka’ means give and take,” N’Dour says on the phone from his recording studio in Dakar. “The music on the album for me is at the origin of so many different styles, like reggae or the blues, and at the same time, we have received so many different kinds of music in return here in Africa that we enjoy, from jazz to Cuban music. So Africa has given, but we have also received in return. It’s an exchange.”

The historical process he’s describing goes back four centuries, but for the past 20 years at least, N’Dour himself has been one of the principal agents of the exchange, and one of the shapers of its terms as the era of globalization sets in. On the strength of his soaring, grace-drenched voice and his insatiable appetite for rhythmic and melodic experimentation, he has rewritten the book several times over on what “world music” – that vexed yet unavoidable category in the trade – is and can be.

When world music as a commercial label was born, in the 1980s, it was on the strength of artists like N’Dour, diamonds in the rough prospected by European promoters who found them playing in Dakar dancehalls or Soweto shebeens, and exported them to high-end recording facilities in places like the English countryside to work under the artistic guidance of patrons like Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Paul Simon, or Sting.

The trade-off in this vaguely Colonial arrangement was that in exchange for adapting their music to something called “Western tastes,” musicians got to press high-quality releases on the emerging CD format instead of cheap local cassettes.

But there were costs as well. In the 1990s, much of the best-selling world music was overproduced pastiche, full of breathy electronic effects or garlanded with ill-advised saccharine ballads in halting French or English. By no means did N’Dour escape the trend. Several of his 1990s albums are uneven, and the song for which he’s best known internationally, the 1994 duet “7 Seconds” with Neneh Cherry, epitomizes the mushy sound of the time while, to its credit, remaining surprisingly listenable.

That sound has passed, and thanks to the Internet and other aspects of globalization, world music today has shed much of its reliance on gatekeepers and patrons. And artists like N’Dour, who spent many years with, in effect, a split creative personality – making fusion music for the international market while advancing local styles back home – have become more free to embark on projects that reflect their own evolving curiosity.

For N’Dour, one major concern this decade has been to honor the mystical Islam that is central to Senegalese culture, and in the process do his part to restore Islam’s image in the West and advance mutual understanding. Musically, he does this not only on “Egypt,” but also at times on the new album, as when he celebrates the Baay Faal mystical sect, which he likens somewhat to Rastafarians.

“The spiritual side is very, very strong,” he says, “especially now when people speak about religion, and people point in particular to the Muslim religion and say all kinds of dumb things, when in fact it’s a religion of peace.”

Though “Rokku Mi Rokka” is a musically diverse album, plowing numerous creative furrows, it is perhaps the first and last songs that best encapsulate where N’Dour is today. “4-4-44,” the opener, is a fun, jaunty piece that commemorates an event on the path to Senegalese independence. And “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling),” the multilingual closer, turns the 1990s inside out: Neneh Cherry rejoins N’Dour on a piece that isn’t the strongest one musically, but that, in a way, retakes ownership of the conversation.

“I wanted to invite Neneh to join us,” N’Dour says. “It was a pleasure to get together with her again, and this time in something that’s much more my sound.”

He reflects on the way world music, and the world in general, has changed since their first collaboration.

“It’s true that now there’s a debate about globalization,” he says. “But the way that we talk about globalization can be confused. Because we can have a good globalization, by valorizing cultures, not eliminating them.”