Youssou N’Dour is a singer, songwriter and composer from Senegal. Although born into a griot family (a traditional African storyteller), he was influenced from an early age, by modern, often international, music – the echoes of which can still be heard in his culturally wide-ranging work. He started performing at 12, initially with the Star Band and then with his own band, Étoile de Dakar. His music is a joyful mix of traditional Senegalese Mbalax, jazz, soul, Latin and even hip hop but the words remain central to his art. His songs deal with a vast range of social issues. His phenomenal voice is closely associated with the ‘World Music’ genre – a genre created in the late 1980s through the musical collaborations of artists like N’Dour with Western musicians like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and Sting. In 1994 a hugely successful collaboration with Neneh Cherry, 7 Seconds
, turned him into an internationally recognized musician. In 2004, he won the Grammy award for his album Egypt
. He once suspended performing to run in the 2012 Senegalese presidential election but returned to performing in 2013. His 34th album Africa Rekk
was released in 2016. He is the first Senegalese recipient of the Praemium Imperiale.
The pure, soaring sound of the voice of Youssou N’Dour is as instantly recognizable and as unique as those major performers from the Western classical opera tradition – yet his is the voice of Africa, in particular, of Senegal, where he continues to be based.
N’Dour was born in a “griot” family; a “griot” traditionally being a story teller, handing down Senegalese folk lore and music. Despite his father’s opposition, he started performing when he was only 12. He says, “In those days, to become a musician was frowned upon. But I was fascinated by music”.
He initially joined The Star Band, but in 1979, he formed his own band, “Étoile de Dakar”, renamed the “Super Étoile de Dakar” in 1981, and became a nationally recognized figure, one of Senegal’s first pop stars.
When he first started performing, Latin and Cuban music were hugely popular, but he wanted to create his own sound, mixing popular West African music with other ethnic music and western pop music – creating his own version of the Senegalese popular music, Mbalax.
In the early 80s, N’Dour’s talents came to the attention of Western musicians and he was invited to collaborate with some of the leading figures from the popular music world such as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Sting. They recorded with N’Dour, creating a new, more global music, often called ‘World Music’. N’Dour’s own view on the idea of World Music is that, “Music has no frontiers. I’ll never, never have a frontier. The essence of music never changes wherever it’s performed.”
In this period he also recorded one of his best known international successes, 7 Seconds
, with Neneh Cherry – a song that introduced him to a huge global audience.
As a “modern griot,” he always tries to create a dialogue with society. His faith and political beliefs are very much the guiding force behind many of his lyrics.
His 2004 album, Egypt
, perhaps being one of the best examples of this connection between the lyrics and music – its content being about Senegal and Islamic Faith. He says, “I feel that Egypt
was and will always remain an album that is exceptional.”
In 2007, he made a documentary film, Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée
, looking at the roots of black music, such as jazz and the blues. He followed this with a concert tour to America and Europe that started from and ended in the Island of Gorée, an offshore island near Dakar which was a center of the slave trade. “The slaves who left Gorée took their music with them to America and elsewhere, be it jazz or Cuban music”.
Over the years, he has actively involved himself with major social issues. For two and half years, he stepped back from music to concentrate on politics, running as a candidate in the 2012 Senegalese presidential election. He has established a Foundation to fight against malaria and AIDS and additionally runs a television company, radio networks and his own record label and recording studios.
In 2016 his latest album Africa Rekk
was released internationally. He is the first Senegalese recipient of the Praemium Imperiale.