Youssou N’Dour: In Africa, music is never just entertainment

Youssou N’Dour concert, 08. November 2022, 8pm, Müpa

In most of the “shallow West”, it wasn’t until 1994, with the long-unremoved 7 seconds with Neneh Cherry, that the average person became aware of his name, but Youssou N’Dour, revered by many as Africa’s most influential singer-songwriter ever, had been scouring the world’s dancefloors for more than two decades.

In Hungary, we had the chance to explore his art before, back in the days of the Iron Curtain, as he dazzled a packed People’s Stadium of freedom and music fans with his unmistakable voice and charismatic performance on Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour in 1988.

Peter Gabriel recruited N’Dour for that concert, just as the musician, revered as one of the apostles of world music, first invited him to collaborate beyond Africa’s borders, launching an unparalleled international career.

If anyone can be described as ‘cross-cultural’, it is undoubtedly N’Dour: It’s one thing to say that in the 1970s, after two earlier formations in Etoile de Dakar and then Super Etoile de Dakar, he was one of the pioneers of malax, a blend of traditional Senegalese music with various Latin elements, but in his later works he added a thousand other musical influences such as soul, funk, progressive rock, reggae and even religious Islamic music, creating an ever-changing yet instantly recognisable melange. Moreover, tribal and religious boundaries have never prevented him from representing a whole continent on the world stage, in front of thousands of fans from a social background radically different from his own, who are otherwise unaware of the region’s issues. As the singer who organised the concert for the release of Nelson Mandela back in 1985 once said, and the quote could be taken as the motto of his entire career,

“music in Africa is never just for entertainment, but a means of social dialogue and sharing ideas”.

Active in the economic, health and social development of the African continent, Ndour has often helped or volunteered for institutions such as the United Nations, UNICEF and the World Food and Agriculture Organization, and in his native Senegal he also served for a time as a minister for the common good.

Of interest to us, however, is his musical existence, and we are not alone in this: over the decades he has been asked to perform by such notable artists as Sting, Wyclef Jean, Bruce Springsteen, dido and Bradford Marsalis. This diverse catalogue of names proves that Youssou N’Dour, compared to Bob Marley by Rolling Stone magazine in terms of his cultural impact, is no outlandish style, his tenor adapting effortlessly to a wide range of genres and his outstanding vocal ability combined with a natural ease that adds to the brilliance of his productions. He is not handicapped in this by the fact that he belongs to the griot caste – the ‘bards’ of West Africa – and his upbringing in the world makes it easy for him to absorb modern ideas and enlightened thinking.

His importance is demonstrated by the fact that he co-wrote the official song of the 1998 World Cup with Axelle Red, and his Grammy-winning album Egypt and his Africa Opera are also landmark works.

He leads his popular band in bringing us songs from last year’s talky album, but of course those who are looking for other gems from a career that has spanned half a century will not be disappointed!

Article: Győző Nagy

Translation: Nóra Fehér