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Youssou N Dour

Category: Musician or composer

performing in Warszawa, Poland during the 5th Cross Culture Festival

Youssou Madjiguène N'Dour (born 1 October 1959) is a singer, songwriter, composer, and actor; born in Dakar Senegal. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine described him as, "perhaps the most famous singer alive" in Senegal and much of Africa. From April 2012 to September 2013, he was Senegal's Minister of Tourism.

Throughout a recording career that has now spanned over 30 years, Youssou N’Dour’s roots in Senegalese traditional music and griot storytelling have remained the hallmark of his artistic personality. Mbalax (or Mbalakh) is the national popular dance music of Senegal and the Gambia and Youssou has been both a ‘daring innovator’ and staunch protector of this - his native music, fashioning a sound that is both characteristically Senegalese and outward-looking.

Youssou is the subject of the award-winning films Return to Gorée (2007) directed by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud and Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love (2008) directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, which were released around the world.

In 2011, N'Dour was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in Music from Yale University.

The Telegraph - Supernatural superstar; Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour has returned to his roots and rediscovered the spirit he lost in Western music - Mark Hudson 12:01AM GMT 12 Dec 2002
…… there's something about him, something beyond talent or charisma - a mixture of sharpness and spirituality, a sense of being drawn closer to some essential energy - that has held the attention of his superstar friends, his legions of admirers round the world and the Western media, who have fallen over themselves to praise him.

And the reason is that Youssou N’Dour is a Sufi. 

Sufism and the spirituality of Youssou N’Dour

Senegal covers a land area of almost 197,000 square kilometres (76,000 sq mi) and has an estimated population of about 15.5 million. The climate is Sahelian, but there is a rainy season.  With the highest birth-rate in the world, Senegal has a mushrooming, youthful population of around 12 million. It is also one of the most stable Islamic countries, with only a marginal fundamentalist presence, but like much of the rest of the world, the gap between rich and poor is both growing and very obvious.  Youssef understands this problem all too well. Because while he may now be a multi-millionaire, the world of Dakar's quartiers populaires is where he comes from.

Boys studying Quran, Touba

Sufism is not hidden or an underground mystic movement in Senegal. 

The Guardian - A song and a prayer Mark Hudson - Sunday 23 May 2004
Driving around town the next day, past the once elegant administrative buildings, the walls are scrawled with images of the leaders of the Sufi brotherhoods that dominate Senegalese Islam

But it is largely the Sufi Brotherhoods that have provided the stability in Senegal, lacking in the Islamic countries where Sufism was virtually wiped out via endless brutal persecution.

The Guardian - A song and a prayer Mark Hudson - Sunday 23 May 2004

Mystical orders, based around particular holy men or 'saints', are common throughout the Islamic world but have acquired a particular importance in Senegal, most notably through Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, founder of N'Dour's own Mouride brotherhood. N'Dour refers to all of them as Our Guides.

'The Islamic religion is one. But the way it is formed in different parts of the world is different. People really live Islam here. You can hear that even in our pop music. Our Guides have helped us to be real Muslims, while keeping our culture. That combination makes things very different here. If very few Senegalese people are fundamentalist, that's due to the influence of Our Guides.'

 

Pictures of Youssou’s  Sufi Brotherhood Guide - Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba - can be seen everywhere in Dakar - peering from wall paintings, from talismanic stickers on taxi dashboards - while the packed minibuses are painted with the names of holy cities deep in the arid interior - Tivaouane, headquarters of the Tijani brotherhood, and Touba, the Mouride 'Mecca', where the tallest minaret in sub-Saharan Africa rises into the shimmering sky over Bamba's tomb.

Bamba, lived at a time when the old Wolof kingdoms began to collapse under the pressure of French expansion. Nervous of this phenomenon, the French exiled Bamba twice. But though he is often hailed as a leader of anti-colonial resistance, he came to a pragmatic understanding with the French, preaching salvation through work - which aided the development of groundnuts as a cash crop - and submission to a spiritual guide, a philosophy that has given his descendants, the caliphs of the order, enormous influence. ….

The Guardian - A song and a prayer Mark Hudson - Sunday 23 May 2004
…..
to the orthodox fundamentalist it's utter heresy. Bringing bin Laden here would be like taking Ian Paisley to the Mexican Day of the Dead.

In other words, despite the poverty and hardships inherent in living in Africa when climate change is affecting both the times of the rains and increasing desertification, the Republic of Senegal is stable because of the Sufi mystics.

Youssou’s Griot heritage

A kora player

N'Dour grew up in the city's original Native Quarter. A mechanic's son, he is descended on his mother's side from a line of griots. Listening to his grandparents, he learnt the arcane phraseology, the ancestral praise names, the alliterative rhythm and rhetoric he would later use to sway a crowd.

A griot is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician.   In African languages, griots are referred to by a number of names: jeli in northern Mande areas, jali in southern Mande areas, guewel in Wolof, gawlo in Pulaar (Fula), and iggawen in Hassaniyan.  Griots today live in many parts of West Africa and are present among the Mande peoples (Mandinka, Malinké, Bambara, etc.), Fulɓe (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanians and many other smaller groups.

The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a societal leader due to his or her traditional position as an advisor to royal personages. As a result of the former of these two functions, he or she is sometimes also called a bard. The word has a certain fascination, as one of the principle centres of mysticism in Denmark at one time was Jelling – presumably meaning the home of the bards.

Francis Bebey - African Music, A People's Art:

"The West African griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel... The griot knows everything that is going on... He is a living archive of the people's traditions... The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle. The profession is by no means a male prerogative. There are many women griots whose talents as singers and musicians are equally remarkable."

Living his beliefs

In Senegal, Youssou has become a powerful cultural icon, actively involved in social issues. In 1985, he organized a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela. He was a featured performer in the 1988 worldwide Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour. He works with the United Nations and UNICEF, and he started Project Joko to open internet cafés in Africa and to connect Senegalese communities around the world.  He was nominated as Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on 16 October 2000.

 He performed in three of the Live 8 concerts (in Live 8 concert, London, Live 8 concert, Paris and at the Live 8 concert, Eden Project in Cornwall) on 2 July 2005, with Dido.

In 2008, Youssou launched his microfinance organization named Birima ("Birima" is also a song's title) with the collaboration of Benetton United Colors.

Unity in diversity

Youssou N´Dour & Le Super Étoile de Dakar

Mystics everywhere applaud diversity.  The very core of the beliefs of mystics is that each has his destiny and is thus unique because each person’s destiny is unique.  But diversity does not mean there cannot be unity.   There are many routes on the spiritual path, but the core beliefs of all mystics is the same.

'We believe there are different ways to get to the same place,' says N'Dour. ‘In Senegal, we believe that our riches lie in diversity.'

And this view has been reinforced by Mohammed Jamal Dia, deputy imam at the Grand Mosque, who explains that in areas with substantial Christian populations, the different religious communities cooperate in building each others' places of worship. By and large Senegalese democracy has also worked. The first president, Leopold Senghor was a Christian backed by the Mouride brotherhood.

Saloum Delta National Park, Senegal

This support for cultural diversity has not only helped the stability of the country, it has enriched its arts – music, poetry, painting and sculpture

The Senegalese would never admit it, but they consider themselves the most civilised Africans. Former president Senghor is considered one of the 20th century's finest lyric poets in French, and crucial breakthroughs in African literature, cinema and the visual arts took place in Senegal.

Whereas in the West not a single modern song has ever been written for the great western mystics – none of Wordsworth’s poems have been set to music, for example, nor have Tennyson’s; they stay in isolated splendour somehow apart from everyday activity.  In contrast, Sufism infuses all the modern culture of Senegal

The Guardian - A song and a prayer Mark Hudson - Sunday 23 May 2004

Back in Dakar, it's two days before the magal, the great pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba. …. Our car radio is playing non-stop Mouride music - mystically inflected voices, wheezing synthesisers and clattering percussion ….. Even cheeky young divas such as Ndeye Kasse and Tity - the country's Britneys and Kylies - record songs for the great mystics, dedicating their cassettes to their spiritual guides. Even singers who aren't Mourides sing for the leaders of the order, just as N'Dour sings the praises of the founders of the other brotherhoods

Working for world peace

The Guardian - A song and a prayer Mark Hudson - Sunday 23 May 2004

…. he has become a figurehead for Africa as a whole, tirelessly promoting the idea that there's more to this continent than corruption, Aids and genocide. In the process, he has established a reputation for being wise, humane and, above all, sensible.

Life

Youssou N'Dour’s  was born in Dakar to a Wolof mother and a Serer father; his mother was a griot, ‘guardian of traditions’. From an early age, he preferred music to his studies, and started singing at circumcision ceremonies before his voice had even broken.  But his parents were firm and insisted he complete his education, wanting to see him succeed. Despite their reluctance, he joined a theatrical troupe at the age of eleven.

 

He joined the Star Band, then the country's top group, at the age of 16. During a concert with the band in Saint-Louis, Youssou’s interpretation of a song, finally convinced his father of his vocation and he was encouraged to attend the Institute of Arts in Dakar. He learned, among other things, solfeggio.

N'Dour
'I was the eldest child, and my father was very against me singing. He wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. But eventually he agreed to let me sing with the Star Band and from that moment I knew I was going to do a lot of things.'

In 1979, he formed his own ensemble, the Étoile de Dakar. His early work with the group, in the Latin style, was popular all over Africa during that time. In the 1980s, he developed a unique sound with his ultimate group, Super Étoile de Dakar featuring Jimi Mbaye on guitar, bassist Habib Faye, and tama (talking drum) player Assane Thiam. 

As other groups emerged who tackled social issues, N'Dour expanded his subject matter to include apartheid and drought - expanding the role of the griot to social critic and political commentator. Having achieved an unassailable position at home, he began looking further afield. Many of his rivals - such as Salif Keita and Baaba Maal - sought careers on Paris's immigrant scene, but N'Dour's destiny took him on a very different route.

N'Dour
'I respect French culture, but I never felt Paris was the place for me to develop. There's been too much between us. When I first played in Paris, it was mostly Senegalese who came, but in London the crowd was 80 per cent British, and people were coming to talk to me in a way I hadn't experienced before - people like Peter Gabriel.'

 

With Gabriel's support, N'Dour became an important figure in world music, signing to Virgin amid a fanfare of publicity. He was dropped after two poor-selling albums, but re-signed to Sony, and just as hopes of that vital crossover hit had all but evaporated, he released 'Seven Seconds', a duet with Neneh Cherry that became one of the bestselling records of the 1990s.

The day he stepped off the plane in Dakar with that gold disc was a pivotal moment. N'Dour was now untouchable. He set about developing Senegal's music industry, building studios and cassette plants that doubled the industry's capacity. By 1991, he had opened his own recording studio, and, by 1995, his own record label, Jololi.  He is also now the proprietor of L'Observateur, one of the widest-circulation newspapers in Senegal, the radio station RFM (Radio Future Medias) and the TV channel TFM.

It appears that when Youssou attempts to adjust his music to a mass audience, or to commercial success, he always fails, whereas when he is true to his roots and his heart, his music is acclaimed [and very special].  For example, the album Joko - an ‘all too blatant attempt’ to appeal to those who bought 'Seven Seconds' - flopped in 2000.  In contrast, his next album, the semi-traditional Nothing's in Vain , was accorded a rapturous critical welcome.

The Guardian - A song and a prayer Mark Hudson - Sunday 23 May 2004

N'Dour has never succumbed to the lure of haute couture and gold bathtaps. He hasn't put himself in hock to politicians, as many African musicians have done. He hasn't become a monstrous caricature ….. He did build himself a splendid modern house, but found it too grand, and now houses his offices there. He has his own record company which licenses material to US label Nonesuch, and is as independent of any external force as he could be. As we amble over the dusty headland above the sea near his house, he exchanges pleasantries with passers-by, joins in with a kids' football game. As our photographer, who has dealt with many celebrities, says: 'You'd think he was the headmaster of the local school.'
'When I step outside these barriers, I'm a different person - working with a lot of people, giving my name to a lot of things that I lead from a distance. But I'm not an open person. My relationship with God and my religion is something I don't want anyone else to know about.'

 

References

 

Bitim Rew (1984)

Nelson Mandela (1986)

Immigrés (1988)

The Lion (1989)

Set (1990)

Eyes Open (1992)

The Guide (Wommat) (1994)

Gainde – Voices from the Heart of Africa (1995)

Djamil (1996) – anthology

Lii (1996)

St. Louis (1997)

Special Fin D'annee Plus (1999)

Le Grand Bal a Evry" (1999)

Rewmi (1999)

Joko: From Village To Town (2000)

 

Joko: The Link (2000)

Le Grand Bal (2000)

Ba Tay (2001)

Le Grand Bal a Bercy (2001)

Nothing's In Vain (Coono Du Réér) (2002)

Kirikou Et La Sorciere (2004)

Egypt (2004)

Jigeen Gni (2005) – single

Alsaama Day (2007)

Rokku Mi Rokka (2007)

Special Fin D'annee: Salagne-Salagne (2009)

Dakar – Kingston (2010)

Mbalakh Dafay Wakh (2011)

Fatteliku (2014)

#Senegaal Rek (2016)

Africa Rekk (2016)

 

The Great Mosque of Touba, home of the Mouride Sufi brotherhood, it is also one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in Africa

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