Youssou N’Dour’s journey began in 1959, in Dakar, Senegal. Music was not his first choice—rather, soccer tugged at him. But after breaking a leg during a game, he turned to his other passion, ultimately evolving into one of the most gifted and beloved innovators of African music.
Although his mother was a praise singer from the gawlo (griot) caste of the Tukulor people, N’Dour’s parents urged him to become a civil servant. But Youssou persisted, embarking on a path that would change the course of Senegalese music.
According to N’Dour, it was the late Laye Mboup who inspired him to create the mbalax style, which evolved from the imported Afro-Cuban sounds that dominated the West African pop scene in the 1950s and ’60s. “He was the first to think of music that was somewhere in between traditional Wolof and Cuban music,” N’Dour says. “Following Mboup, there were a number of people who were willing to explore new combinations. But when we came along, we decided to be more direct and aggressive about it. We were less fearful of combining the elements of our own traditions into the modern music that we were starting to make.”
In 1983, the 24-year-old N’Dour recorded the groundbreaking album Immigrés (Sterns/Earthworks). On the title track, N’Dour recognized the plight of Senegalese living and working abroad, calling on them not to forget their roots. It marked the first time the mbalax sound, driven by tama and sabar drums, could be heard outside the continent. Immigrés also brought N’Dour together with a non-African fan, the British rock artist and world music booster Peter Gabriel. N’Dour joined Gabriel on the latter’s So tour, where he met another future collaborator, Sting. It marked a new chapter in African music, as major labels like Sony and Virgin jumped to sign him.
Since then, N’Dour has divided his career in half, producing one set of albums for the Senegalese market and another for his international audience. Sony has released his international CDs, giving pop makeovers to many of his Senegalese hits. In the years since Wommat—The Guide, his last Sony disc, N’Dour has recorded such classic African cassettes as Lii!, St. Louis, Dikkaat and Rewmi. N’Dour’s production work at Xippi Studio reveals yet another side of this multi-faceted artist. His highest-profile recent projects have been the albums of singer/songwriter Cheikh Lo.