Youssou N'Dour Biography

1 October 1959, Dakar, Senegal. Born in the Medina, or ‘old town’, district of Dakar, N’Dour is the son of Ndeye Sokhna Mboup, herself a well-known traditional musician, who gave him his grounding in the traditional music of the Wolof people. His first public performances came with two local music and drama groups, including Sine Dramatic, which he joined in 1972. The following year he made his first public appearance with a modern band, singing with Orchestre Diamono. In 1975, he toured the Gambia with the band, returning after his parents complained he was too young to start a life on the road. In 1976 N’Dour took the first steps in a career that would establish him as one of Senegal’s greatest musical pioneers, joining the Star Band, who were the house band at Dakar’s leading nightspot, the Miami Club. With them N’Dour began to forge the fusion of western electric instrumentation and traditional Wolof rhythms and lyrics that became known as mbalax.

In 1979, N’Dour left the Star Band, and set up Etoile De Dakar, which in 1982 he re-formed as Super Etoile De Dakar. The mature mbalax style emerged at this time, as N’Dour added a variety of western instrumentation to the tough, multi-rhythmic Wolof folk songs that he was reinterpreting: a base of rolling, flamenco-like guitars, fuzz-box guitar solos and stabbing, Stax Records -like horns. Slowly, the sound developed. Ten cassette releases, starting with Tabaski in 1981, displayed an increasing fullness and power of arrangement. The lyrical subject matter ranged from folk tales to celebrations of life in Dakar, and the problems faced by migrants to the cities. In Senegal, N’Dour’s reputation increased. His prowess as a praise singer attracted rich and famous patrons, all of them keen to be immortalized in his songs and willing to pay large sums of money for the privilege. Poorer people, particularly the urban youth, identified with his pride in his Wolof roots while also enjoying the rock and soul edges his instrumentation and arrangements brought to the music.

Outside Senegal his music received wider attention with the western release of two classic albums, Immigrés (1985) and Nelson Mandela (1986), which attracted sustained critical praise and significant sales in the USA, UK and France. In 1987 N’Dour was invited to support Peter Gabriel on a lengthy USA tour, returning to Dakar with an Akai sampler with which to record and further explore the traditional sounds of Senegal. The results were to be heard on The Lion and its 1990 follow-up Set. Both were realized via a new contract with Virgin Records, though he was later unceremoniously ‘released’ from the contract. For purists in the West, the albums showed rather too much western influence. His Senegalese audience, however, received them with huge enthusiasm.

Books and videos on N’Dour followed, cementing his position as the pre-eminent African musical export of the 90s. While Eyes Open, despite several enchanting songs, led some to believe N’Dour had lost his edge, The Guide pronounced his talent undiminished. Collaborating with Jacob Desvarieux, Branford Marsalis and others, it was the first album to be conceived, recorded and produced in Senegal. Taken from it, ‘7 Seconds’, a duet with Neneh Cherry, reached number 3 in the UK charts in 1994, furthering N’Dour’s status as a genuine crossover artist. He subsequently concentrated on his home market, releasing several cassette albums and appearing live every weekend at his Thiossane club. Joko: From Village To Town, his long awaited return to the international fold, was released in early 2000 (a reworked version was distributed to the North American market under the title Joko (The Link)). Both this album and its follow-up Nothing’s In Vain (Coono Du Réér) paid tribute to the artist’s desire to return to his acoustic roots, and were greeted with some of the best reviews of N’Dour’s career. In 2007 he played a small but impressive part in the movie Amazing Grace.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.