Youssou N’Dour

For 30 years, Youssou N'Dour has been a mesmerising beacon within African music. His golden tenor voice resonates with power and purpose to not only present the ancient griot traditions of Senegal in a fresh light but also carry strident political and social messages across Africa to the wider world. United as friends by their social concerns as well as their creative connection, Peter Gabriel once declared Youssou N'Dour as "simply one of the best singers alive." Mixing the country's traditional mbalax with everything from Cuban rumba to hip-hop, jazz and soul, N'Dour's prolific output sings of Africa's identity, heritage and hopes, often with a political edge.

N’Dour was born in the Medina, the very heart of Dakar, in October 1959. One of a long line of Tukulor griots, N’Dour had grown up singing alongside his mother at religious ceremonies before studying theatre as a young teenager. His astounding voice won him live slots on national radio and a boy-wonder status he exploited by hustling for gigs outside nightclubs like the Thiossane, the Copacabana-style nightclub he bought in his twenties and still owns today.

Aged 18, after stints fronting popular local outfits, Star Band and Etoile de Dakar, N’Dour formed Le Super Etoile de Dakar, throwing in Cuban influences, adding guitars and keyboards and reclaiming the Senegalese sabar. Writing songs with lyrics that touched on migration, African identity and the beliefs of the Mourides, the peace-loving branch of Islam to which he ascribes; about African figureheads such as the still imprisoned Nelson Mandela and the 16th century Senegalese philosopher and thinker, Kocc Barma Fall.

N’Dour’s voice quickly captured the mood of a nation anxious to re-find its national and cultural identity after many years of colonialism. Before long, N’Dour’s music was being played on every street corner in Dakar calling all to listen to songs which tell of the good things of African life: peace, well-being, religion and the more serious matters of drought and apartheid. From 1979 he toured with his band, The Super Etoile de Dakar, to neighbouring African states, to many capitals in Europe, to USA and to Canada. Everywhere appreciated by enthusiastic audiences made up not only of his countrymen abroad but of growing numbers of people discovering the richness, the complexity, the sheer exuberance of his art.

Many of Youssou’s contemporaries – such as Salif Keita and Baaba Maal – sought careers on Paris’s immigrant scene, but N’Dour’s destiny took him on a very different route.

"I respect French culture, but I never felt Paris was the place for me to develop. There's been too much between us. When I first played in Paris, it was mostly Senegalese who came, but in London the crowd was 80 per cent British, and people were coming to talk to me in a way I hadn't experienced before - people like Peter Gabriel." Youssou N'Dour

Rolling Stone magazine judged N’Dour’s potential long-term impact on African music fans and general audiences alike, so promising that “if any Third World performer has a real shot at the sort of universal popularity last enjoyed by Bob Marley it’s Youssou, a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it”.

N’Dour’s trilingual hit ‘7 Seconds’ – a duet with Neneh Cherry – was named Europe’s Song of the Year at the May 1995 World Music Awards in Monaco and won numerous other honours, staying near the top of the pop charts in most European countries for a long period. ‘7 Seconds’ is Youssou’s most commercially successful composition abroad to date, having sold more than two million copies worldwide as a single.

Over the years, N’Dour has become powerful cultural icon, actively involved in social issues. In 1985, he organized a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela and was a featured performer in the 1988 worldwide Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour alongside Peter Gabriel and Sting, and collaborated with Lou Reed on a version of the Gabriel’s ‘Biko’ which featured on the Amnesty International benefit album The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball. Involved with the United Nations and UNICEF, N’Dour started Project Joko to open internet cafés in Africa and to connect Senegalese communities around the world. N’Dour has continued to dedicate his life and work to raise awareness globally for human rights, including taking part in three of the Live 8 concerts, taking on the roles of Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), council member of the World Future Council, founded a microfinance organization named Birima. His song “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)” (2009) helped IntraHealth International in their IntraHealth Open campaign to bring open source health applications to Africa.

All this, unsurprisingly, led N’Dour to seek a political career. From April 2012 to October 2012, he was Senegal’s Minister of Tourism and Culture, and from October 2012 to September 2013, he was Senegal’s Minister of Tourism and Leisure.

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