Yousson N'Dour: Crossing New Boundaries

7/13/2011, 10:56 a.m.

There was no real need to widely publicize Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour's recent show in Washington at Lisner Auditorium. Followers of the ground-breaking African superstar were anxiously anticipating his return to the area--the first in three years--and sold out the concert in short time. But N'Dour's appeal goes beyond the area's African immigrant community, although Senegalese residents constituted most of the audience, because N'Dour is one of the rare African musicians who has crossed over into mainstream Western music.

Starting with his collaborations with Peter Gabriel (on his So album) and Paul Simon (on Graceland) N'Dour's distinctive tenor has become familiar to music aficionados on this side of the Atlantic, but not quite to the extent as in his native Senegal, where the 51-year-old is a veritable superstar. Moreover, when Neneh Cherry and N'Dour recorded the iconic "7 Seconds" in 1994, it remained on the charts for nearly half a year and reached the top three across Europe, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, Russia and Poland. The haunting melody stayed at #1 for 16 consecutive weeks on the French Singles Chart, which was the record of the most weeks at the top at the time. "7 Seconds" was released as a track on N'Dour's album The Guide (Wommat), shortly after the single and in 1996 it was included on the Neneh Cherry's album Man.

Since then, N'Dour has been the subject of two documentary films, "Return to Goree," and "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love" which chronicled the making of his Grammy-award winning, yet controversial recording, Egypt. in 2004. Although the album was set for release in 2001, after 9/11 the singer delayed it, but still drew criticism as being an unsuitable representation of Islamic music, as it crossed over into the pop music genre.

Seven years later, N'Dour is once again, crossing boundaries and oceans, this time with his recent recording Dakar-Kingston released in the United States in June on the Emarcy label. As an advocate of traditional and popular African music, N'Dour sought to establish the relationship between reggae music and its roots in Africa, which includes new music (the opening tune "Marley" pays homage to the late Bob Marley after a musical introduction on the talking drum) and by revisiting his own hits in a reggae rhythm. The result is a totally accessible conglomeration of roots reggae and mbalax, utilizing the talents of the reggae music industry's most revered musicians; Wailer's keyboardist Tyrone Downie, Earl "Chinna" Smith, Bongo Herman and dub poet Mutabaruka. Although about half of the songs are sung in N'Dour's native Wolof language, the vibe is bouncy and familiar, even if the words are not. But many of the songs are sung in English, like the beautiful tribute "Black Woman," "Africa Dream Again," with Nigerian singer Ayo, and "Don't Walk Away," featuring Jamaican artists Morgan Heritage. He closes out the recording in the same mode as it opened with a cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," which through the voice of N'Dour, takes on the same deep dimension as when Marley recorded it in 1979.

Named "African Artist of the Century," by England's iRoots Magazine and included in "TIME 100" Time Magazine's list of the "hundred men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world," after 30 years of genre-bending, songwriting, recording and promoting Senegal's mbalax style of music, Youssou N'Dour still sounds as fresh as ever.