Some of the most exciting sounds to come out of Africa in the late '80s and 1990s have been produced by Senegal-born vocalist Youssou N'Dour. Although rooted in the traditional music of his homeland, N'Dour has consistently sought new means of expression. In addition to recording as a soloist, N'Dour has collaborated with a lengthy list of influential artists including Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Neneh Cherry, and Branford Marsalis. According to Rolling Stone, "If any third world performer has a real shot at the sort of universal popularity last enjoyed by Bob Marley, it's Youssou, a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it."
A native of the impoverished Media section of Dakar, N'Dour inherited his musical skills from his mother, a griot (oral historian) who taught him to sing as a child. A seasoned performer before his teens, N'Dour joined the popular group, the Star Band of Dakar at the age of 19. Within two years, he had assumed leadership of the group, which he renamed Super E'toile De Dakar. With the band accompanying his four or five octave vocals, N'Dour helped to pioneer mbalax, an up-tempo blend of African, Caribbean, and pop rhythms. Performing for the first time in Europe in 1984, N'Dour and Super E'toile De Dakar made their North American debut the following year.
N'Dour's talents soon attracted the support of top-rated musicians. In 1986, his vocals were featured on Paul Simon's Graceland and Peter Gabriel's So. He subsequently toured around the world as opening act for Gabriel. His greatest exposure came when he agreed to be a co-headliner, along with Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Tracy Chapman, on the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour in 1988. The same year, he performed at the much-publicized birthday concert for South African activist (and president) Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium in London.
N'Dour cemented his reputation, in 1989, when he released his first internationally distributed album, Set, which included a tune, "Shaking the Tree," that he co-wrote with Gabriel. Signing with Spike Lee's Columbia-distributed 40 Acres&A Mule label, in 1991, N'Dour scored a Grammy nomination with his first effort for the label, Eye's Open. He continued to seek new outlets for his creativity including an African opera that premiered at the Paris Opera in July 1993. Recorded in Senegal, N'Dour's album, The Guide, released in 1994, included his hit duet with Swedish-born vocalist, Neneh Cherry, "Seven Seconds." A steady stream of greatest hits packages, reissues, singles and even a few full length records poured out during the late 90's and into the next century, watching N'Dour work with artists from Etoile de Dakar to Peter Gabriel. ~ Craig Harris, All Music Guide
Written by Craig Harris