Click Here For Video
"Africa wants a modern sound from us,” says Youssou N’Dour, speaking from a hotel room in London, where he and his band Super Etoile are touring in support of his new album, Rokku Mi Rokka (Give And Take). “And you want a traditional sound. For us in the middle, it’s crazy.” Such is the paradox facing an African pop singer today—at least one who would dare aspire to relevance both at home and abroad—but if N’Dour’s words evoke an inner crisis, his tone of voice suggests playfulness and supreme confidence. With the exception of Mali’s Salif Keita, none of his peers has so thoroughly solved the relevance riddle. N’Dour is still Senegal’s —and arguably Africa’s—preeminent musical star, and he holds the attention of his country and the world not by giving audiences what they demand or expect, but by surprising them.
Rokku Mi Rokka is N’Dour’s homage to the northern border region of Senegal, Mauritania and Mali—a region whose quiet riverside villages at the edge of the Sahara were always the province of N’Dour’s countryman Baaba Maal. There’s plenty of tradition in the album’s 11 tracks, but it’s not the tradition listeners might expect from an urban singer who built his career to the crack of Wolof sabar drums in the nightclubs of Dakar. At the same time, the music on Rokku Mi Rokka is all about modernity, for N’Dour considers this remote region to be the source of the world’s most bankable pop genres. “The big idea for this album,” he says, “was to present the roots of all this music: reggae, blues, soul and hip-hop. All this music that has touched us in so many ways has something in common. I listen to reggae and I dance. When I listen to blues, I feel happy, and I say to myself, ‘This is music that comes from our home, from West Africa, along the border of Mauritania, Mali and Senegal.’” It’s a refinement of a familiar and almost clichéd idea, but coming from Youssou N’Dour, it takes on the air of revelation.
Few artists in the world can match the technicaland emotional range of N’Dour’s singular voice, nor the crackerjack polish of his band, Super Etoile. N’Dour has basically worked with the same musicians for 27 years—almost unheard-of in African pop music, where loyalties are difficult to maintain under the pressure of social, political and economic turmoil. Equally impressive, Super Etoile’s stability never translates as inertia or lethargy. N’Dour’s fans in Senegal span classes and generations, and even those who criticize his music and messages will be hard pressed to resist studying—and likely buying—his latest work. By contrast, N’Dour’s international fans miss out on the lyrics, experiencing his undulating grooves and horn-like voice as a kind of hypnotic vocal jazz. Yet they too remain loyal and curious, even at a time when African pop is arguably in decline on the international scene, with its freshness being perceived as played out, and its future more about hip-hop wannabes than bold originals.
It’s no accident that N’Dour manages to thread this vexing needle. A pitch-perfect composer of pop songs, he has mastered the art of creating unifi ed, coherent albums that simply cannot be ignored. These days, he even makes it look easy. But it wasn’t always this way. In 1999, as the millennium approached and Folk Roots magazine declared N’Dour the “African Artist of the Century,” the heat was on. N’Dour had not produced an international release in four years, and was under the gun to match the success of the song “Seven Seconds”—a moody, R&B duet with Neneh Cherry that proved to be his biggest hit. Pressed for the title of his long-awaited follow-up, he replied with a sigh, “I’m just calling it ‘Finally.’” The album that actually emerged was Joko (The Link), a str