Exploring the world through music

Part 1: Senegal with Youssou N’Dour

Senegal is on the western coast of Africa. Like most West African countries, its ports were used to load slaves on to European ships bound to the New World. This historical legacy triggers a simple question. Can jazz music be linked to Senegal? Can rhythm and blues, soul, rap, hip-hop, maybe even reggae, link up with Senegal?

The lexicon of music in America and Europe borrows heavily from languages of West Africa. Merengue, the dance, is possibly related to mererek, a Fulani word meaning shake or quiver. Marimbula, the plucked instrument in the Caribbean, is very much a West African contribution. As is jive, a Wolof word and jukebox, also Wolof. And the big one, jazz – among the many theories, the Mandinka word jasi and the Temne cognate yas are prime candidates for being the mother word. All these are, of course, theory from a linguistic history point of view for the simple reason, that there are no written records or chronicles or memoirs of that tumultuous period and the journey of words from one continent to another will remain a matter of conjecture even though it sounds convincing and matches up with the recorded history of forced migrations.

But, let’s assume it is so. So if Senegal, the home of the Fulani and Wolof people, is where they – the people, the language, the music – embarked on their journey to the New World, what if those people, the words, the music came back to Senegal?

Youssou N’Dour, possibly the most famous Senegalese musician, helmed a project in 2007 called Return To Goree. This project involved N’Dour going to all the musical hubs of America like New Orleans, Atlanta, New York and Chicago to meet some of the brilliant contemporary jazz musicians there and bring them to Goree Island for a concert. The island, just a few miles off Dakar, was a custom house – for slaves. Human cargo was brought in from the interior villages, stored here in the basement, weighed, accounted for in the inventory ledgers and then loaded onto ships. They went through the Door of No Return – a doorway opening on to the small jetty that led the slaves from the custom house on to the waiting boats.

For N’Dour, this project culminated over 20 years of being an ambassador of African and specifically West African music. Back in 1984, N’Dour was in Paris playing songs from his album Immigres (Émigré) when among the audience was Peter Gabriel. That began, to use an old cliché, a beautiful friendship. N’Dour guested singing Wolof in In Your Eyes from Gabriel’s most successful solo album So. Then he toured with Gabriel, Springsteen, et al in the 1988 Human Rights tour. Since then, artistically and commercially, N’Dour kept growing to become the superstar that he is today.

In 1989 came Peter Gabriel’s magnum opus – Passion, the soundtrack for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Youssou N’Dour was a major contributor as were many others including fellow Senegalese legend Baaba Maal (I will explore his music in the next post). You can hear N’Dour’s voice in the title track itself where his voice is blended with that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (with L Shankar providing the strings).

Musically, N’Dour’s work encompasses multiple styles. In Noises of the World, a oral history of musicians by Hank Bordowitz, N’Dour says

My music is modern African music. African music is the mother of all these other musics (sic), and that is the truth.

This sentiment, incidentally, goes back to the narrative in the beginning of the post – where do all the various styles of music come from?

Apart from the music, N’Dour the songwriter has also been very active in raising awareness and consciousness of the culture, not just outside Africa, but also within Africa. Very consciously, he has been writing songs in French and English, international languages, that, although imposed through colonial means, help reach out to a wide spectrum of nationalities and ethnic groups in Africa (and indeed rest of the world). Much of his music also ties up with his activism.

Birima is a song from 2000. It refers to a 19th century monarch King Birimba Ngone. Birimba was known for his hospitality, his honour and that he always kept his word. N’Dour’s song, translated, has this line

Ah! Birima! A day spent in your presence
Was the picture of hospitality!

This song comes from another part of N’Dour’s lineage – the lineage of griots. Griots are a separate caste in west Africa – they are story tellers, balladeers, historians, hagiographers. Their job is to convert the events of the day into song and ensure people remember those events through those songs. N’Dour, on his mother’s side, comes from a family of griots. Birima, a tale of a king, comes out of that. In 2008, N’Dour started a microfinance institution in Senegal and named it Birima Microfinance.

Youssou N’Dour is also a Sufi follower. He is part of a brotherhood called Mouridism founded by Sheikh Amadou Bamba. Mame Bamba, a song from the 1994 album The Guide (Wommat), written in Sufi style, celebrates his spiritual guru. The song begins in Wolof and then for the most part is in English. Sheikh Amadou Bamba was a Qadriyaa sufi saint in Senegal. He resisted the French colonial rule and was even exiled. His philosophy, ensconced in Mouridism, influences Senegalese life even today. N’Dour in his song writes:

The man in me changes
Every time I read your khassayids
My strong faith in you
Makes me survive in this crazy world.

In 2004, N’Dour hooked up with the Fathy Salama Orchestra of Egypt to record an album of songs celebrating the Sufi spirit. It was originally called Sant Allah (Thank you Allah) and was ready five years ago. The events of September 2011 and the general response of the Western world to all things Islamic forced him to hold the release of the album. It was finally released with a simple name Egypt. This was a coming together of extremities of the Sahara desert but it also established Senegalese Islamic traditions as distinct from Arabic traditions. There are songs about the leading figures of his brotherhood, about Touba, the city that serves as the cultural centre for the Mouridists and about his faith. Critically hailed by everyone, no one was surprised when it won the Grammy Award.

Robert Christgau, in the Village Voice, writes,

So for N’Dour, who for 20 years has been building bridges to Europe and America, to go to Egypt to record these pointedly pan-Sufi lyrics–in addition to praising the two Mouridist founders, he devotes songs to Qadiriya history, a Tijani anti-colonialist, a Tijani pan-Africanist, and an eccentric messianic brotherhood–is to remind his Western friends, and enemies, that in the crucial matter of faith he is not “Western,” not even a little bit.

The career graph of Youssou N’Dour, from the 1980s to the present, shows his journeys across the world. His music today is spans multiple genres – rock, reggae, electronica, jazz, soul. He uses synthesisers to generate traditional mbalanx sounds. His favourite music, apart from African sounds, if one might say, won’t shock anyone – Marley, Gaye, Prince. He is called to tribute concerts, charity concerts, World Cup football opening events, political events and other occasions. He tried to run for president but withdrew. He has set up a state of the art recording studio in Dakar, where he continues to live, when not traveling. His studio has now become a hub for Senegalese music which had to otherwise go to Paris to be recorded. He is an important person.

My Youssou N’Dour Playlist on Youtube has the following songs (You can check out a pre-curated playlist on Apple Music)

  1. Return To Goree, a documentary that rivals Buena Vista Social Project in artistic excellence
  2. In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)
  3. Passion (Peter Gabriel), a most goosebumps raising blending of voices of N’Dour and Nusrat.
  4. Birima, with a simple video from the streets of Dakar
  5. Badou, composed and created when he was still unknown to the rest of the world.
  6. Mame Bamba, one of his older songs about his spiritual guru Sheikh Bamba
  7. Egypt, 2004, Grammy Award winning work, to use a much abused word – seminal
  8. La Cours des Grands, a typical song for the World Cup, used in 1998. The original French song does however have a slightly more poetic feel than the modified English version.
  9. 7 seconds (with Neneh Cherry), from 1994, the title of the song refers to the brief fleeting moments of innocence that a new born baby experiences before being told who he or she is, what the colour of his or her skin is, what it means, etc.
  10. Ob La Di Ob La Da, a lovely rendition of a Beatles classic
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