Globalization ain’t all bad: Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that acts from all over the world would be making pit stops in the Triangle and particularly, the N.C. Museum of Art? The museum’s outdoor amphitheater is becoming the destination for world music performers and their fans. Besides sponsoring Africa Fete in ’99, which featured Senegalese star Baaba Maal and Taj Mahal, the museum has also hosted Cuba’s Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame and South Africa’s inimitable Mahotella Queens.
But on Wednesday, Oct. 3, the museum will score perhaps its biggest coup with Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese singer who almost single-handedly pioneered the mbalax music form and the slick, compelling sound of Afropop. Technically, mbalax is the basic accompanying rhythm in Wolof drumming, but now the term describes a musical style–a pulsating synthesis of West African rhythms with Caribbean inflections, with all the creative embellishments made possible by modern recording techniques.
N’Dour is perhaps Africa’s greatest contemporary artistic ambassador to the outside world and actually holds the title of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. But you may know his voice, if not his name; it’s N’Dour’s high, keening voice that accents the Peter Gabriel song “In Your Eyes,” from Gabriel’s So album.
Born in Senegal, West Africa, to a mechanic and a member of a griot family, N’Dour inherited the storytelling abilities of his mother’s ancestors and the put-it-together capacity of his father. But what he puts together is sound from disparate worlds by mixing the acoustic guitar with the tama, the hourglass-shaped, double-headed Senegalese talking drum.
While world music is a vague, amorphous category, N’Dour epitomizes all that is good about it by choosing instruments, languages and collaborators from across the musical spectrum. This approach helped him score a global hit with “7 Seconds” (a duet with Neneh Cherry) on his 1994 album, Wommat (“The Guide”). Six years elapsed until N’Dour’s most recent U.S. release, 2000’s Joko (“The Link”). The album is aptly named. At times, its beats could be from a pop ditty or a rock song, and during others, such as on the track “Yama,” they could belong within a house of worship. Songs were recorded in N’Dour’s Dakar studios, in London and in Paris, the capital of African music. And on “This Dream,” old Genesis hand Gabriel sings backup. Another track, “She Doesn’t Need to Fall,” tells men, “The survival of every relationship is based upon mutual help.”
Both “She Doesn’t Need to Fall” and “Miss,” the succeeding song on Joko, address the central role of women in African societies. N’Dour reminds his listeners in “Miss” to remember “women like Aline Sitoe Diatta.” Diatta is sometimes described as the Senegalese Joan of Arc, who fought for independence and was eventually captured by the French and sent into exile.
But whatever the lyrical inspiration or syncopation, Joko is an aural delight due to the skills of N’Dour’s band, Super Etoile, and his almost superhuman voice. That voice is so much more than a projection from a trained throat or diaphragm: It’s the chronicle of a changing continent. In N’Dour’s singing and lyrics, there are echoes of the Islamic past and master griots of Senegal; snapshots from the present–where electricity shortages are commonplace but Internet cafes are sprouting–and the future, a time where N’Dour’s homebrew of cosmopolitan universalism and localism will become the norm.
N’Dour will perform at the N.C. Museum of Art on Wednesday, Oct. 3. Call 839-6262 for details.