Print this Page

African Legends

Youssou N’Dour

By Dan Rosenberg
Published November 21, 2006

Youssou N’Dour’s journey began in 1959, in Dakar, Senegal. 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, ultimately evolving into one of the most gifted and beloved innovators of African music.The late Laye Mboup 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.

In 1983, the 24-year-old N’Dour recorded the groundbreaking album Immigrés (Sterns/Earthworks), which brought him together with the British rock artist and world music booster Peter Gabriel. Major labels jumped to sign N’Dour.

When it came time to record Joko, his 2000 album, N’Dour faced a dilemma. Throughout Europe, where audiences are used to listening to music in different languages, his heavily produced crossover records showed up regularly on the pop charts. In America, however, his music was still relegated to the world music bins. Ultimately, he decided to balance the Senegalese mbalax and international pop.

Sony France was extremely happy with Joko and it won rave reviews and made the Top 20 on pop charts across the continent. But Sony was concerned that there wasn’t an appropriate in-house label to market the album in the U.S. In an almost unprecedented move, Joko was licensed to the Warner-affiliated Nonesuch label.

Rather than issuing the French version of the album intact, Nonesuch decided to make a few changes. Feeling that the pop songs with Sting and Wyclef Jean didn’t fit Nonesuch’s image, they convinced N’Dour to replace them with two mbalax tracks direct from Dakar, “Miss” and the overtly political “Mademba (The Electricity is out Again),” dedicated to trade unionist Mademba Sock. In the end, Nonesuch’s version of Joko turned out to be N’Dour’s best international release in a decade, providing a rare look into the mind of this multi-dimensional super talent.

Nonesuch has since issued N’Dour’s highly praised Nothing’s In Vain (2002) and Egypt, in which he explored his conversion to Islam.

Recommended Recordings

Immigrés (Stern’s/Earthworks)
Joko (Nonesuch)
Egypt (Nonesuch)