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4 Youssou N’Dour songs you’re missing out on right now

Youssou N'Dour Lobby
Photo: Youssou N’Dour. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Have you heard of Youssou N’Dour before? I certainly hadn’t before looking at the season calendar for UMS.

A few facts: Youssou N’Dour is a Senegalese musician who has collaborated with greats such as Sting, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Springsteen. One of his most notable accomplishments was collaborating with Axelle Red on the official anthem for the 1998 FIFA World Cup. N’Dour formed his own ensemble, the Super Étoile de Dakar, in the 1980s. Playing the Latin-infused dance music that was popular throughout Africa at the time, the group brought their unique sound to Europe and North America on concert tours, and in 2005, he won his first American Grammy Award for best contemporary world music album.

If you’re someone who loves exploring different kinds of music or music that you’ve never heard before, then, like me, you’ll get hooked on this man’s music. Never mind the fact that a lot of his lyrics are in French and Wolof, a language of Senegal, the melodies and infectious beat will sneak their way into your head and stay there for days.

1. La Cours des Grands

This song is for the soccer fans and French lovers – “La Cours Des Grands” is the official anthem for the 1998 FIFA World Cup and was sung by Youssou N’Dour in collaboration with Axelle Red, a Belgian singer/songwriter. I enjoy this song because it has a very inclusive view and aims to target the worldwide audience of the World Cup. This generally cheerful song is a good mood-lifter, and I’ve added it to my morning playlist to get me ready for the day.

2. 7 seconds

Arguably his most well-known song, “7 seconds” reached No. 1 in France and stayed there for 16 consecutive weeks. It also reached the top spots in several other European countries. The song highlights the diversity of the world and the racism that many continue to face today. The title refers to the first 7 seconds of people’s lives, when they are not aware of differences in skin color, ethnicity, or race. The lyrics include these lines:

“and when a child is born
into this world
it has no concept
of the tone the skin it’s livin’ in”

I, as an Asian-American, don’t feel the impact of racism often, but I do experience it once in a while, and this song really speaks to those instances of my experience. Racism is something people learn in their lifetimes, not a natural trait, and “7 seconds” highlights this fact.

3. Immigres/Bitim Rew

On a less serious note, this song was released on one of Youssou N’Dour’s first albums, Immigres, which contained only 4 songs and helped to land him on the international map. I have to admit, the only word I understand in this song is “Senegal,” but I love the beat and listen to it when I cook because the beat is perfect for stirring, and also because the song manages to put a smile on my face without fail.

4. Undecided

This song is by far my favorite. I heard the song at the right moment a few week ago. As I was at my desk, researching Youssou N’Dour’s music, I got sidetracked by thinking about my future. As a junior, and I’m sure other students can relate to this, I have moments of panic while thinking of my upcoming summer and what in the world I’m doing with my life. I had this plan of blowing recruiters away and acing all of my classes, but in reality, I’m sometimes struggling to meet these expectations. I’m struggling to decide what I want to do and how to do it. I’m struggling because I feel like I’m lost and everyone else seems to know exactly where they belong.

This song came on right in the middle of my mini freak out session. It was so different from the other upbeat Youssou N’Dour songs that it caught my attention, and after listening to the calming tune, enjoying its jazzy feel and, of course, seeing the title “Undecided,” I was hooked. I can’t say that this song gave me an epiphany about my life but it did calm me down during my panic, and now when I listen to it, I feel the sense of calmness washing over me. I close my eyes, sit back, and simply enjoy.

Youssou N’Dour and Super Étoile de Dakar perform at Hill Auditorium on November 14, 2015.


Q&A with Cheikh Lô

A superb singer and songwriter as well as a distinctive guitarist and drummer, Cheikh Lô blend of semi-acoustic flavors — West and Central African, funk, Cuban, flamenco — has been distilled into his most mature, focused, yet diverse statement today, his new album, Jamm. He performs at the Michigan Theater on April 13.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof is assistant professor of history, American culture, and Latina/o studies at the University of Michigan.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof: You now live in Senegal. But you are from Burkina Faso, which is a crossroads of many languages and cultures. What kinds of music did you hear in your house as a child?

Cheikh Lô: In my childhood, I heard all the music of Latin America and especially music from Cuba. This was music that came to West Africa. Congo and rumba were also heavily influenced by the music of West Africa. In the 70’s, I began to listen to pop music, soul, reggae, Jimmy Cliff, James Brown, and Michael Jackson, whom I remember seeing during his visit to Dakar in 1971.

JHG: On your latest album you sing a wonderful version of the song Seyni, which is a rumba. You even sing some of the lyrics in Spanish. I understand that this was the first song you ever sang in public. I think this may be surprising to audiences in Michigan. What was the importance of Cuban music for West African musicians of your generation?   

Cheikh Lô: It was very important. We all started listening to that music and learned to play the chords on the guitar. It was a great reference for musicians of our generation. After Cuban music impacted us, it was music that had its origins in Africa and was created by Africans transported to America. The music of Cuba penetrated throughout West Africa and many musicians of my generation went to school there thanks to music scholarships.

JHG: You later moved to Dakar, one of the great musical capitals in Africa. There, you became known for your ability to blend the many popular musical traditions of the continent, especially Senegalese Mblax and Congolese Soukous. Please help our Michigan audience to understand these two styles.

Cheikh Lô: For me the combination of different styles has always been natural. From my beginnings in the first band I formed, there were musicians of all nationalities in Africa: Congo, Mali, and Burkina. Each sub-region of Africa has its specific characteristics. I have also spent time in hotels playing standards of Western music. The mixture of styles has always been natural in my career as an artist.

JHG: Of course, you have gone on to add other sounds as well.  You toured with an all-star funk band led by Pewee Elis (who led James Brown’s band for years).  He and Tony Allen (longtime drummer with Fela Kuti) appear on your new album.  You also recorded in Bahia with Carlinhos Brown and Ile Aye. Can you tell us about your experiences collaborating with artists in the African diaspora?

Cheikh Lô: Being open to musical influences is very important and has always brought me many satisfactions. With Pewee, our long relationship has been extraordinary. He has worked in 3 of my 4 albums, and I hope our relationships continues to last over time. With Tony Allen, I remember when we met in 2004 at the concert “Black President.” I played the drums with Tony and another American drummer. The experience was incredible. Carlinhos Brown and I share a very similar vision of music, so collaborating is always fun.

JHG: Your lyrics are quite political.  I think this might be lost on audiences in Michigan because most of us don’t understand Wolof, or Jula, or even French (although you would be amazed at how many Senegalese fans turned up when Baobab was here a few years ago). Can you explain the message of your songs Conia and Warico?

Cheikh Lô: For this I recommend reading the full transcriptions into French and English. They do a magnificent job of translation, and it’s well worth being read by the public in its entirety.

JHG: Speaking of politics, the last few years have seen a number of musicians move into political posts. Gilberto Gil was minister of culture in Brazil, Michel Martelly is now President of Haiti, Youssou N’Dour, who produced several of your albums, is running for President in Senegal. Barak Obama has been caught on film singing Al Green and B.B. King songs. Can we expect you to run for office?

Cheikh Lô: I do not think that I would devote myself to politics. It’s not my job. You have to be honest with yourself and know what your role is in life. Being a career politician is difficult and takes many years of work to be done well. I’ve worked with people in my community, not from a political standpoint but artistically. My mission will always be music. There is also corruption in politics, and I’m not willing to enter that world.

JHG: So what is next for Cheikh Lô?

Cheikh Lô: We want to have a big U.S. tour. Our group is trying to offer a wide range of music to American audiences with a show full of nuance and rhythm.