The African superstar Youssou N’Dour is coming to Austin this Saturday, June 18. Fans of his music know that N’Dour not only performs music from his native Senegal, but lends his rich voice to a variety of styles and creative fusions, like on the memorable 2004 album, Egypt. On his latest album, Dakar—Kingston, N’Dour creates a unique blend of reggae and his own Mbalax music, with a band made up of both Jamaican and Senegalese artists. This is his first visit to Texas in many years, one that devotees of Afropop will not want to miss.
N’Dour, 51, has been performing in his native Senegal since the age of twelve, and his experience shows. He comes from the Griot tradition, where singers keep the history of African tribes alive through song. Perhaps even more impressive than his mastery of pitch and tone is the number of forms that his creativity takes. Youssou is most well known for his singing–the Rolling Stone declared him “perhaps the most famous singer alive” in Africa–but he is also a composer, bandleader and music producer. He was awarded an honorary doctrate in music from Yale University this year. He is also a percussionist, actor and an avid defender of human rights, having worked with the United Nations and UNICEF in the past and currently serving on the World Future Council. The Texas Observer had the opportunity to talk with N’Dour at his home in Dakar, before he embarked on his U.S. tour.
TO: What inspired you to do a Reggae album?
I’m a big fan of Reggae. A long time ago, my uncle worked in a store that would play a lot of Reggae music. So, I’m a big fan of Reggae. At the same time, I’m someone who tries to see the roots of a lot of music. When the slaves left Africa, I think the music left too; maybe the roots of Reggae music are from here. I love this music, and we decided two years ago to go to Jamaica, to describe all these roots and connections between Africa and Jamaica. I think the Reggae music gives me a lot of space for my voice, an helps me really express.
TO: So, are you working with Jamaican musicians?
Yeah, I worked with Tyrone Downie, you know, the keyboard player for Bob Marley. We worked together all the time with a lot of Jamaican musicians, but also a lot of Senegalese African musicians.
TO: So the band that’s going to be coming to Austin, Texas on your tour, is going to be a combination of Jamaican and Senegalese musicians?
TO: Switching gears a little bit, I see you call yourself a modern griot. Could you help me understand what you mean by that? How does your music connect to the griot tradition?
Firstly, griot are the storytellers. We are also the singers, the music players. In our society, before the radio or TV, the griot was the connection. And I come from this griot tradition on my mother’s side. At the same time, I was born far away, in a lot of modernity, and my father was not griot. Griots talk about the story. And I’m talking about the reality, now. That’s why I call myself a modern griot.
TO: So what are some of the issues right now that you feel are important for you to talk about?
We need to tell people how to be human, how important it is to, how things are now. I think this album, I call it reggae music but it’s really Youssou reggae music, is something you can use to talk about a lot of social things. I think the message is very important. I know a lot of people love this kind of style, want to give this kind of message.
TO: You’re such an international star now. Do you feel like your message is still focused towards Africans, or is the focus more international now.
Both, both. Sometimes, you know, I talk about Africa, because I live here, I talk about the society, and because I’m from Africa I have a view of the rest of the world. It’s half and half, but really, I’m more focused on Africa because I sing more in Wolof, in my native language. A lot of people understood directly what I am talking about, in African society.
TO: So what do you see as the main issues when you talk to your audience about, when you look around you in Dakar?
Oh, well, firstly, just give them music. Tell them, Africa is not really all these things you think about. Yeah, there are a lot of difficulties, but a lot of hope also, a lot of smiling, a lot of beautiful things.
TO: You’re one of the first African musicians to break out into the international scene, and that was before we had World Music sections in record stores and before the Internet. And now world music has become a whole genre, and I’m wondering if your approach changed, and how you responded to that change.
For me, now, everybody is playing world music. In the beginning, people would talk about world music using Indian pipes, or African drums, but today, what I feel is everybody’s playing world music. And this is great. Everybody says world music is coming from Africa, but we create something a little from Africa, a little from Anglo-Saxon music, a little from Asia, and this is what I call world music. This kind of music is something brand new. Sometimes people forget where they’re coming from–I do two kinds of music, one is really roots, really traditional, and the other I call world music. We share it with the world.
TO: Have you been to Texas before?
I think I have been to Texas, but it was a long time ago. I was with Peter Gabriel, playing that day, and then left, you know, the next day. You know, there is a lot of African old souls that live in Texas and Arizona. I’m really excited.
TO: Tell me, what do you think are the main differences between African audiences and American audiences?
I think personally, African audiences, Senegalese, they know what I’m talking about. Also, you know, they know more of my music. American audiences, they really have a image they will talk about, that they are waiting for. They want to see Africa on stage. And we bring Africa on stage, fresh from Africa.