Arts & Events

Youssou N’Dour at Zellerbach

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 20, 2015 - 03:50:00 PM

African music’s superstar Youssou N’Dour came to a packed Zellerbach Hall with his band, Super Étoile de Dakar, on Saturday, November 7. Now 56 years old, Youssou N’Dour began performing at the age of 12 and became one of Africa’s most popular musicians in the 1970s, subsequently achieving international recognition as a musician and cultural ambassador of his native Senegal. Singing in Wolof, Senegal’s principal language, as well as French, and English, Youssou N’Dour draws on the West African griot tradition of praise singing and oral history. His music is a fusion of mbalax (a polyrhythmic West African dance music,) Cuban rumba, jazz, reggae, and soul. With his powerful, high-pitched griot voice and his charismatic stage-presence, Youssou N’Dour was named by Rolling Stone magazine as « the world’s most famous singer. » He was the subject of the filmed documentary Youssou N’Dour : I Bring What I Love, about Senegal’s divided reaction to his Grammy Award-winning album Egypt, a deeply spiritual album dedicated to a more tolerant view of Islam. In 2012, Youusou N’Dour assumed the office of Senegal’s Minister of Tourism and Culture.  

I first heard Youssou N’Dour live at the Fillmore more than twenty years ago in San Francisco in summer 1994. His 1992 CD entitled Eyes Open had quite literally opened my eyes and ears to the genius of Youssou N’Dour and his band. I have sub-sequently heard them numerous times, and they have never disappointed. Nor did they disappoint on Saturday at Zellerbach. Quite the contrary. They had the place jumping. By the end of their two-hour show, performed without intermission, everybody in the audience was on their feet dancing or at least swaying to the infectious mbalax rhythms. The song-list numbered more than twenty, (I lost count), and included a mix of new songs and selections from older CDs such as his 1993 release, Womat (The Guide). Among the latter were « mame bamba » and the pop-chart hit « 7 seconds. » (On the latter, the female voice, originally sung by Nenneh Cherry, was here sung by the band’s female back-up singer Pascale Kameni-Kamga. ) 

Several songs featured percussionists Babacar Faye and El Hadji Faye, longtime members of Super Étoile de Dakar. Alain Oyono was featured on saxophone. Moussa Sonko was outstanding as an acrobatic dancer, performing West Africa’s highly energetic whirls, kicks, and somersaults with amazing ease and flamboyant showmanship. Towards the end of this two-hour feast of African music, Youssou N’Dour intoned his hopeful hymn entitled “New Africa;” and I believe he had all of the audience joining in his praise of the as yet unachieved promise of this great continent, where I spent two of the happiest and most seminal years of my life in my very early twenties..