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Most of us have a memory vault of pop associations in place of a sense of history--it's what makes us American. So let's set aside for a moment Youssou N'Dour's roots in Senegalese Mouridism and recall Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, holding that boombox to the sky, plaintively serenading his estranged teen love with Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." The song was N'Dour's entry into American pop in 1985, unleashing a crier's wail that was both ghostly and acrobatic--imagine Desmond Dekker flexing "Israelites" into a show of soul force at the Apollo. By 1989 the movie had put the song on the charts and N'Dour on MTV, and the singer was being touted as Afropop's potential Bob Marley.
The Dobler effect certainly suited N'Dour's music. John Cusack's character--dubbed "the greatest boyfriend in cinema history" by the feminist magazine Bust--shared one passion with the world's foremost son of a griot mom: a loving respect for women. "If I could write all my songs just about women, I would," says the singer via e-mail from his home in Dakar. "People in Senegal say my 'public' has always been a feminine one. I take a lot of ribbing about this. It may just be a natural phenomenon for me: My experience of women's grace under pressure, their courage, their resolve... All of this experience tends to be imbued in my songwriting."
N'Dour's righteousness is so disarming because his empathy is so generous: Even his political rebukes are more appeals to conscience than Fela-style condemnations. On his first American album in six years, Joko (The Link) (Nonesuch), the musician berates, then defends an electric-company union leader, Mademba Sock, telling the government to fix a power outage for the sake of the poor. He talks to and for Senegal like the modern griot he is, a child of the densely populated Medina quarter in Dakar who still performs for his core audience, jamming into the wee hours four nights a week at his urban club, the Thiossane.
N'Dour was still a teenager when he became Senegal's first pop star in the late Seventies, forming Super Étoile (the band he brings to First Avenue this Thursday) when he was 20. His otherworldly voice entered the fray just in time to popularize the music called mbalax--the playing of traditional Senegambian rhythms on electronic instruments. Even today N'Dour sings mostly in Wolof, the lingua franca of Senegal's cultural nationalists, and he still name-checks Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, the 19th-century Koran thumper who founded Dakar's most influential Islamic brotherhood, the Mourides.
Yet N'Dour's patriotism doesn't preclude internationalism--or commercial ambitions beyond Western Europe. To the contrary, he has comfortably made the world his stage, playing for Nelson Mandela and Amnesty International; teaming variously with Gabriel, Paul Simon, and Tracy Chapman; and serving as ambassador to both UNICEF and now the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. And while the American market was underwhelmed by N'Dour's Gabrielesque synth-ballads on 1989's Virgin debut The Lion, the musician kept tabs on the hip-hopification of nearly everything, dueling with Neneh Cherry in 1984 and with Wyclef Jean this year. Anyone who thinks Africans haven't paid close attention to our treatment of the Amadou Diallo case should note N'Dour's appearance on Wyclef's "Diallo" (off The Ecleftic) and his dedication of Joko to Diallo's memory.
In sonics and dramatics, Joko could snarkily be described as the best Peter Gabriel album you can imagine--which might sound like a dis to rhythm enthusiasts still spellbound by N'Dour's old band Étoiles de Dakar and its raw, funky faux-Cubanismo. But N'Dour thoroughly updates both Gabriel's influence (with only a token backup vocal by his old mentor) and his own variations. That old fusion of six-beat rhythms and rock song-structure has had some six years to stretch out--time off for family has given the musician an opportunity to fine-tune, experiment, and relax with his band.
Lyrically, N'Dour's songs are also looking homeward more. "If you don't know where you're heading anymore/Go back to where you come from," he sings in Wolof on the opening cut, "Wiri-Wiri." The song was based, he says, on material given him by Henri Guillabert, a member of the Seventies Senegalese group Xalam who lifted the prodigy from playing parking-lot gigs outside concerts to commanding the stage. And though the lyric asks "Papa for forgiveness," N'Dour implicitly and explicitly honors his "Yama" elsewhere, declaring, "Women of Senegal: Know that we men are not your superiors."
Just as Dakar's bustling music scene rapidly adopts Western digitalization--cassettes are finally giving way to downloaded CDs--N'Dour's music sounds thoroughly modern. Put another way, sometimes it sounds eager to please: "Red Clay" could get airplay on the Point. But this lush rush, with its programmed plinks of the kora (the griot's harp-guitar) and bops of the balafon (marimba), manages a jumpy sophistication that R&B beat-men could envy.
And the songs in this song-based music are perhaps the best of N'Dour's career. Even on the page, his lyrics somehow sound matter-of-fact and passionate at once: A line like "God can channel your luck through someone else" has a logician's thump but a priestly power. When he gives sweet melody to the mantra "A day like this will come/A day like this will go" on his tribute to the work ethic, "Liggeey," it's a conciliatory gesture after admonishing his fellows that "after you've missed a day's work/It is almost impossible to catch up."