If there is one icon in the fertile ground of Senegalese popular music, it is Youssou N'Dour. His career exploded from early tapes circulated throughout his home country to beautifully produced CDs snapped up all over the world. It's a tribute to his originality, his keen marketing sense, and the still-growing affinity of Americans and Europeans for so-called "World Music." Best of all, N'Dour has sparked and fertilized the careers of several innovative younger musicians. His 2000 record Joko represents a reformatting of N'Dour's European release Joko From Village to Town for American audiences. If anything, it has been streamlined and strengthened by the transition.
Youssou N'Dour's signature sound is a pulsing, positive fusion of West African styles with elements from all over the world. It's uplifting, danceworthy stuff. He's collaborated with a number of Western musicians, from Peter Gabriel to Neneh Cherry, with variable results. But N'Dour sounds best on his own, leading bands rich with percussion (especially the bubbling conversation of the talking drum), light rhythmic guitar strokes, and (of course) his own bright voice. There's something about the rhythmic freedom and open arrangements of these tunes that recalls the freest spirit of improvisation, though nobody would call this jazz.
Somewhere between rap and song, N'Dour makes a serious effort to turn every piece into a messagewhether it be in English or Wolof. On his anthem for youth, "My Hope Is In You," he intones, "Drop your gun and go to school." On "Beykat," he salutes the poor man who has long been the foundation of African society:
Here is the peasant, the most courageous of all men
He harvests corn and millet for our survival
Under the sweltering heat, he is hoping for rain
Bear witness to his courage.
In the end, then, you have to believe in N'Dour's message. It's not at all pretentious, and that lack of self-importance lends it universal appeal. The music is a simple reflection of this spirit, and there's not much to argue about there. This particular record from 2000 represents a departure from his most effective work (for example, the hugely popular Set ), because he relies heavily on synth textures and programming. Sure, it's interesting to hear his organic spirit blended with synthetic sound. But in the end it's a disappointment.
Youssou N'Dour is a man of the earth, not a product of knob-twiddlers and keyboard hustlers. His countryman Baaba Maal crested heavenly plateaus with the all-acoustic Missing You (2001), after having crashed earthward with the overproduced Nomad Soul (1998). These records finds the mbalax spirit of Senegalese Afro-pop hopelessly diluted with studio meddling. The thing that saves Joko is the omnipresence of N'Dour, whose voice and spirit somehow manage to bring warmth and light out of the murk. Simpler tunes like "Mademba" and "Miss" hint at the brilliance of Youssou N'Dour's vision. Check out his recent acoustic Nothing's In Vain (2002) for brilliant evidence of Youssou N'Dour's roots.
Personnel: George Acogny: Keyboards; Tracey Amos: Choir, Chorus; Habib Faye:
Bass; Mbaye Dieye Faye: Percussion; Manu Katche: Drums; Dominic
Miller: Guitar; Youssou N'Dour: Vocals; Pape Oumar Ngom: Guitar; Pino
Palladino: Bass; Simon Richmond: Keyboards, Programming; Andy
Shafte: Programming; Assane Thaim: Tama.