Youssou Ndour takes the party line

Youssou Ndour takes the party line

If a life in music is made up of a string of magical moments, then a balmy summer night, under the huge fig trees in Adelaide's Botanic Gardens in 1992, holds a special significance for those who attended the first WOMADelaide Festival.

Youssou Ndour: Get ready for a party, not just a concert.

Youssou Ndour: Get ready for a party, not just a concert.

World music enthusiasts already knew the unique, glorious, high-tenor vocals of Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour. His singing had featured on Paul Simon's Graceland and Peter Gabriel's So – both released in 1986.

Hardcore fans had scoured arcane record shops for his albums, and the world music label Earthworks, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, had released Ndour's Immigres in 1984.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared the WOMADelaide crowd for his headlining performance.


Backed by the Le Super Etoile de Dakar, Ndour's show was a sublime mixture of compulsive rhythms, jangling guitars, Senegalese musical traditionalism, Cuban-influenced jazz and funk all set against a stage ablaze with colour, vibrancy and exuberance. It was delivered by a group of musicians wearing brightly coloured robes and traditional Senegalese grands boubous (a kind of brightly coloured Senegalese suit) and sounded irresistibly danceable.

Around that time the English writer Jenny Cathcart, while working on a BBC series Rhythms of the World, wrote a book about Ndour in which she said: "Youssou has become the first Senegalese pop idol; he has succeeded with style and courage, dragging Wolof culture out of the shadow of colonialism, daring to create a popular music that tells old tales and modern truths, a music that can make the saddest people dance to the drums of their ancestors – the invigorating tribal rhythms of the past – and to the rhythms of present and future global music."

Ndour did not appear from nowhere. In Senegal, he was already being described as "the Michael Jackson of Dakar" and by 1988 he had released 14 cassettes.

His mother came from one of the well-known Senegalese griot families (griots are singers, historians, poets and storytellers) and, although the traditions are usually carried through the male line, she encouraged the young Ndour to pursue her family's traditions.

His rise from successful Senegalese pop star to world music superstar was, as he recalls, a happy accident.

"I was doing my thing and was happy to be doing it," he says on the telephone from Dakar. "It was Peter Gabriel who helped take me to another level and another place. He took me to a place where I could play what is called 'world music'. Peter invited me to be part of his recordings and part of the Womad shows. We sang together. He is someone I respect."

Over the years, Ndour has also turned his attention to Senegalese politics (he has been Senegal's minister for tourism and is currently "advisor to the President of Senegal") and devoted energy to promoting a new generation of west African musicians or, as he describes it, "doing for young African musicians what Peter [Gabriel] did for me. We have lots and lots of talent. I am interested in what is happening in Nigeria, what is happening in Mali. There is a new generation of musicians. I have a record company which is run by one of my young brothers."

It is more than just a concert and people will dance a lot. That's the point. We play music and the audience have fun.

Youssou Ndour

Ndour has remained remarkably constant. Although it is more than a quarter of a century since that unforgettable WOMADelaide appearance, the band he performed with then remains largely intact.

He explains: "It is basically the same band … 90 per cent the same as it was in Adelaide. The only difference is that this time the aim is to have a party, rather than just be a concert. We call it a 'block party' because it is more than just a concert and people will dance a lot. That's the point. We play music and the audience have fun."

Apart from Ndour's mesmerising stage presence and beautiful voice, the secret to his music lies largely in its unique and compulsive mbalax rhythms.

"Mbalax is Senegalese rhythms. You can hear it in the music. There will be three percussionists in the block party – one on talking drum; one on tama [the drum that calls people to dance at Wolof ceremonies and festivities] and a set of modern drums. Also, I play percussion and sometimes all 10 members of the band will be playing percussion."

Non-stop dancing and 10 percussionists. Can the Opera House handle such exuberance?

Youssou Ndour and Le Super Etoile de Dakar perform at the Sydney Opera House on March 28 and Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on March 31.

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