Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour performed before a delighted audience at the Strathmore Music Center on May 29, lighting up the stage with his innovative, Worldbeat sound.
Backed by his dynamic nine-piece band, Super Étoile de Dakar, the singer, songwriter and composer performed a 90-minute set that blended various musical cultures, including rock, Latin, Afro-pop and Mbalax.
While sometimes spiritual, Mbalax is a highly energetic form of music that combines traditional melodies from Senegal with western pop culture, Cuban rhythms and contemporary instrumentation.
A native of Dakar whose family were Sufi Muslims, N’Dour, 59, gained an international following in the late 80s following his association with pop stars Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.
His collaboration with Swedish singer Neneh Cherry on “7 Seconds,” and his controversial recording of the 2004 “Egypt,” garnered him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album.
“Egypt,” lyrically heavy on Muslim themes and Arabic cultural influences, was frowned upon by some Senegalese Muslims for combing pop music with Islamic traditions.
However, “Egypt” was a critical success in the Western world. A 2010 documentary on the singer’s life, and his award of an honorary doctorate of music by Yale in 2011, further cemented the singer’s fame.
N’Dour became a political icon in 2012 in Senegal when he ran for president after vocally criticizing incumbent Abdoulaye Wade.
He lost, but that same year was appointed as country’s tourism and culture minister by then prime minister Abdoul Mbaye.
At Strathmore, N’Dour performed 15 songs that were accompanied by a variety of percussive instruments, including a djembe (a drum with a goatskin head); a sabar (bass drum); and a tama (held under the armpit and also known as a talking drum). The addition of other instruments, including keyboards, flute, saxophone and bass guitars added to the infectious beat that had many swaying along or dancing in the aisles.
The evening kicked off with the upbeat “Sama Gamou,” followed by “Baykat,” “Serigne Fallou” and “Dem Immigres.”
The appearance of a high-stepping male dancer added to the festivity of the evening, particularly when dancing the ventilatuer.
Hiking up his colorful boubou, the dancer performed sky-high leaps that were followed by cartwheels and amazing legwork.
“Ay Coonor la” had the audience singing along, while “Salimata,” “Be Careful,” “Birima” and “Set” were well received. During “New Africa,” N’Dour paid tribute to slain South African leader Stephen Biko and the late freedom fighter and South African President Nelson Mandela who fought against apartheid.
“I Love You,” “Niaar fi Nek” and “Happy” closed out the performance, with many still humming along to the music as they filed out of the hall. It was a perfect ending to a day that began with N’Dour, internationally known for his advocacy of human rights, being presented an award by Montgomery County that had declared May 29 “Youssou NDOUR Senegalese Mbalax Day.”
N’Dour’s impact on the politics in Senegal and those of some musicians in other countries also was discussed during a pre-concert lecture in the Strathmore Mansion titled “Music is the Weapon of the People.” The discussion was presented by Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
During the one-hour discussion, Devermont discussed the evolution of pop music in Africa from the 1960s to today and its role in the struggle for human rights.
He discussed how musicians like N’Dour, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Lucky Dube, Alaa Salah and Bobi Wine had used music to bring international awareness to corruption and the abuse of human rights in such countries as South Africa, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Angola.
A successful businessman who owns a record label, radio station and newspaper, N’Dour also has made a difference in Senegal by providing employment opportunities for his fellow citizens.