Film & Music

Published on September 16th, 2020 | by Alioune Badara Mbengue


Youssou N’Dour, an innovative Senegalese singer and songwriter

Today, artists come to France from all over the French-speaking world to record their songs. In the French-speaking music of Africa, we find Youssou N’Dour who’s a Senegalese musician and who recorded with Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Manu Dibango, Alan Stivell and Neneh Cherry among others. One of his most notable accomplishments was to collaborate with Axelle Red on the official anthem of the 1998 FIFA World Cup. N’Dour formed his own ensemble, the Dakar Super Star, in the 1980s.

Youssou N’dour. Photo Credit: The Culture Trip

Youssou N’dour, a voice that sustains Africa

Youssou N’dour is an African singer with international fame. He started singing at family celebrations as a teenager after he left school, he never went to high school. He began his career at the age of nineteen with the Etoile de Dakar group.

Youssou N’Dour acquired notoriety in Senegal and in 1978 he decided to start his own music group, the Super Etoile de Dakar. He has worked with internationally renowned artists like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Manu Dibango, Alan Stivell. In 1985, he met French artists Michel Berger, Daniel Balavoine, and Jean-Jacques Goldman, this didn’t lead to any projects with them in particular,  but it did expose him to humanitarian projects such as Action Schools, which help African children and other humanitarian efforts such as those that provide water pumps for poor African farmers.

A global success…

One of Youssou N’Dour’s most famous songs is a duet with singer Neneh Cherry called 7 Seconds. The clip, shot in New York, was directed by Stéphane Sednaoui. In 1998, he composed the anthem for the final phase of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, La Cour des Grands, which he sang with Axelle Red. In 2008, he also worked with the Congolese artist Koffi Olomidé on the album Bord Ezanga Kombo; he performed the Song Festival with Koffi Olomidé and Cindy Le Cœur.

He composed the music for the animated feature film, Kirikou and the Sorceress, which was directed by Michel Ocelot. (1997)

He also plays a role in the film Amazing Grace (2006) where he played the character of Olaudah Equiano and plays his own role in the documentary Retour à Gorée (2007) evoking the history of the slave trade and its musical heritage through jazz and gospel music.

He also sang in duet with the Lebanese diva Majida El Roumi in the song Biladi Ana, released in the latter’s album, Ghazal (2012). In 2013, he won the Polar Music Prize in Sweden.

Youssou N’dour. Photo Credit: NYTimes

Youssou N’dour, the king of Mbalax

Youssou N’Dour had an important influence in the creation of mbalax, a modern African pop style that draws inspiration from traditional Senegalese rhythmic elements and international styles. A type of popular rhythm and dance music, developed in Senegal with influences coming from zouk, soukous, funk, and jazz.

Youssou hadn’t invented anything in the 1970s, but he popularized a rhythmic style composed of percussion instruments such as the mbeung-mbeung, the khiin, the talmbatt, the thiol, the sabar and others (all traditional musical instruments). American music, whether jazz, soul, pop, rhythm and blues or salsa, greatly influenced the mbalax style until the end of the 70s. But then experienced a  “return to its roots”, with music like salsa-mbalax (Cuban music accommodated with Senegalese percussions) and the acoustic group “Wato Sita,” which means “It’s time” in Mandingo, which brought an original touch by including the different instruments found in traditional Senegalese music.

A nod to the seventh art

Heir to a family of griots who have become world stars, Youssou N’Dour has inspired several documentary filmmakers. After Retour à Gorée by Pierre-Yves BBorgeau; a movie about a roadtrip across the United States where a  singer/preacher convinced some African American musicians to help put on a concert with them in Africa; the film Youssou N’Dour: I Bring what I Love is centered around another one of his many political music projects: the album Egypt, which was conceived shortly before the attacks of September 11 and therefore delayed by the attacks was entirely dedicated to the promotion of a tolerant vision towards Islam, the record came at the wrong time so to speak.

The first featured film by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, a young filmmaker who grew up between Brazil and the United States, is the result of spending two years alongside the Senegalese musician.

The film is centered around the release of his album, Egypt, and the enthusiastic reception it experienced in the United States, and the tension that it aroused in Africa, it presents itself as a portrait, the director made it out to be a little too hagiographic perhaps and maybe it’s too superficial to be truly captivating.

We see Youssou N’Dour with his family, alongside his mother, and grandmother, a famous griot who sang for the king in his time. We see him on tour, backstage, but also in long sequences on stage with which the director pays ample homage to the beautiful voice of her subject, and to his extraordinary stage presence.

By resorting to archive images, she also looks back on the singer’s youth, and on the great moments of his international career (The duet In your Eyes with Peter Gabriel, achieving multiple gold disc status, 7 Seconds with Neneh Cherry, humanitarian tours with Bono…).

7 Seconds with Neneh Cherry. Photo Credit: Amazon

Thus emerges the success story of a musician on more than one mission: to perpetuate the family heritage and to transform it, to establish himself as the spokesperson for the whole of Africa.

Focus on the album Egypt, a masterpiece

The album was largely recorded in 1999 in Dakar, Senegal, and was originally scheduled to be released as early as 2001, but was delayed until 2004 to avoid association with the September 11 attacks. Additional oud and traditional orchestral overdubs were performed in Cairo, Egypt, where the N’Dour quartet was joined by the Fathy Salama Orchestra for most of the songs.

On this album, Youssou N’Dour combines both West African and North African musical influences. The record uses instruments from both regions, such as the West African kora and the Arab oud.

The lyrics praise Mourid Sufism, of Senegalese Islamist Order to which N’Dour belongs.

The songs are sung in Wolof, the last song incorporated more French words than on the rest of the album, and most of the songs are mainly dedicated to the marabouts of the Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal, like Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Murid brotherhood.

The album is named in homage to Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who strongly influenced Youssou N’Dour when he was a child.

Thom Jurek of AllMusic called it a “surprising” album, saying that:

“Unlike his previous recordings, the organic and sacred character of this music seems to lie outside time and space; he moans and chirps, hums and moans. It’s the music of joy and reverence and, as it connects the different aspects of Islamic cultural traditions, it is hoped that it can create, through the beauty of its sound and the translation of its words, a portrait of a very different world, of that portrayed by Western media constructions.”

International Albums:

1989 : The Lion
1990 : Set
1992 : Eyes Open
1993 : Seven Seconds
1994 : Wommat
2000 : Joko
2002 : Nothing’s In Vain
2004 : Egypte
2006 : Badou
2007 : Rokku Mi Rokka
2010 : Dakar-Kingston
2010 : I Bring What I Love
2013 : Senegal Super Star 
2016 : Africa Rekk
2019 : History

Sources :

Personal documents
Le Monde

This article was translated in English by John Wilmot.

About the Author

was born in Diourbel, Senegal. He did all his school studies in his native country. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in 2005, he had to do a two-year training at the Ecole Supérieure Polytechnique (ESP) in Dakar where he earned his DUT in Finance-Accounting in 2007. Passionate about writing and of literature, he published his first novel "Les flots en sanglots" in February 2016.

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