Youssou N'Dour

Born : 01/10/1959 in Dakar (Senegal)
Country : Senegal
Language : Wolof
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : world music

So far, only four artists have managed the cross-over from African music: Myriam Makeba in the 60s, Manu Dibango in the 70s, Mory Kanté in the 80s and now Youssou N’dour as the century reaches a close. However the main difference between You and his predecessors is that he has achieved his success in the land of his ancestors. With his habitual quiet obstinacy, he has never believed that living in Dakar would be an obstacle to conquering the world. A fine example, and bravo !

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So far, only four artists have managed the cross-over from African music: Myriam Makeba in the 60s, Manu Dibango in the 70s, Mory Kanté in the 80s and now Youssou N’dour as the century reaches a close. However the main difference between You and his predecessors is that he has achieved his success in the land of his ancestors. With his habitual quiet obstinacy, he has never believed that living in Dakar would be an obstacle to conquering the world. A fine example, and bravo !

Youssou N’dour was born on 1st October 1959 in Dakar, Senegal. His father Elimane was a labourer. His mother, Ndèye Sokhna Mboup was a "griotte" (storyteller, singer, poet, shaman). From his earliest years, he preferred music to schoolwork, but his parents would not be moved and wanted to see him succeed. But at the age of eleven, he decided to join the Sine Dramatique theatre troupe and there was noticed by a musician with the Dounia Orchestra, Pacheco, who recommended him to the Diamono and more particularly Charlie Diop. He joined the group and patiently awaited his hour of glory.

Things really started to happen when he was only thirteen. On the death of Papa Semba Diop, known as Mba, the leader of the Dakar Star Band, the Super Diamono composed a song which the young Youssou - with his very distinctive voice - sang during a fund-raising concert for his family in Saint-Louis. The event was a great success.

After this first try-out, the Diamono was invited to play in Banjul in Gambia. Youssou did not tell his family and was assumed to have run away. On his return, he received a strong lecture from his father and it was time to lay the cards on the table. Youssou finally managed to convince his father that he had found his vocation and entered the Dakar Arts Institute, where among other things he learned sol-fa.

In 1975, after the arrival of musicians at a famous club in the capital, the Miami, Youssou N’dour joined the new band. Owing to his very young age, his father negotiated his contract with the club owner, Ibra Cassé.

The Etoile

He stayed until 79, when with another singer - El Hadj Faye - he formed a new group, l’Etoile de Dakar, with the band being led by Badou Ndiaye. It immediately scored a hit with "Xalis" (money). In 81, the two singers fell out and Youssou left the group to form another, the Super Etoile.

Everything he did was a success and he was the undisputed No. 1 of the mbalax hit-parades. Like the "griots" from whom he was descended, he sang about daily life, friendship and religious festivals. His greatest success however seems to have been the invention of a new dance, the "fan", which was all the rage in the clubs of the Senegalese capital, against a background of music combining traditional rhythms and modern instruments. A few hits such as "Walo Walo", "Nadakaro", or "Indépendence" underpinned his success. His albums (often distributed in cassette form) were released by Editions Madingo. 

His slightly raucous voice, his authority within the group and his growing charisma made Youssou the new ambassador of Senegalese music. At the age of 24, he was already an experienced businessman and headed a veritable empire employing musicians, managers, secretaries and so on. He had also become owner of the Thiossane club where the group would perform when it wasn't on tour. He was, in addition, a man who took great care with his image, that of a good non-smoking, non-drinking Muslim. The perfect son, he lived with his parents in the Medina quarter in Dakar, where he grew up. 

Although the countries of West Africa welcomed the new Senegalese star as one of their own, his European tour, which began in May 84, was somewhat harder. It started in Paris at the Africa Fête, an African cultural festival which welcomed the pioneers of afro-rock, Osibisa and Youssou N’dour.

On 18 May 84, his show was a triumph, not only with his immigrant compatriots (who had had the chance to see him in a Paris club a few months previously), but also with the Parisian public. The event took place at the Espace Baltard and lasted three hours. The tour continued into Germany, England, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Switzerland. In France, he made contact with the Celluloïd label and put them in charge of his interests. 


On returning to Africa, Youssou N’dour went off on another African tour with the Super Etoile, from Mauritania to the Ivory Coast. This ambitious artist wanted to ensure that the largest number possible heard his music and songs in Wolof. He returned to France for the Bourges Spring Festival in 85, played the first set before Jacques Higelin with the Guinean artist Mory Kanté in the immense hall at Paris Bercy from 12 September to 12 October and returned to Paris in December for a week-long starring concert at the Théâtre de la Ville. He also took part in the "Tam Tam for Ethiopia" record at the initiative of Manu Dibango, to support the fight against famine in that country. He was everywhere at once, which could only help develop his international career.

After a further series of concerts in Paris at the Théâtre de la Ville in March 86, "You", the idol of Senegal, became the ambassador for African music and went to promote it across the Atlantic in the United States and Canada for a total of three weeks. This was a further success and magazines such as "Time" were eloquent in their praise for the musical and stage performance of the showman.

He met Peter Gabriel for the first time in 1984 and they quickly became friends. Gabriel even hired him to play the first part of his American tour with two memorable shows in Madison Square Garden in New York in 87. Using the momentum from this tour, they did Europe along the same principles.

It was during his global tour of 88 with stars such as Sting, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman that Youssou N’dour finally hit centre stage. The concerts were given on behalf of Amnesty International and this adventure - into which he had thrown himself without truly realising the impact - completely changed his image and from a national icon he became a world-wide star.

1989: "The lion"

He was still appreciated as much as ever at home and went on tour, bringing out audiences of 4,000 in Rufisque, 3,000 in Rosso, 4,000 in Kaolack and Zinguichor and several thousand in Nouakchott in Mauritania. The "Child of the Medina" on this occasion managed to bring together some forty technicians and musicians, travelling in enormous lorries carrying the equipment (even though the roads are sometimes impassable). Youssou N’dour seemed to be determined to demonstrate his professionalism despite the logistical problems.

In 1989, his first international record was released on the Virgin label. "The Lion" ("Galendé" in Wolof) is an album which was expensive to produce. Mbalax was still the main driving force of his music but here it is combined with synthesiser and sophisticated arrangements worthy of the highest tech studios. Peter Gabriel was invited for a duet on "Shakin’ the Tree" and acted as production adviser. If certain aficionados of "You" began to talk of the deformation of his music, others saw in this record the beginnings of African fusion.

To coincide with a European tour, which passed through Paris on 2nd November 1990 at the Olympia, his second album with Virgin, "Set", came out in October (although already released on cassette in Senegal since December 89). Although the Dakar Super Etoile still formed the central core of his musicians, another thirteen members were added, bringing new sounds (accordion and cello), although the tama (small under-arm drum) remained the star of instruments. Without changing direction in relation to the previous album, Youssou demonstrated the full repertoire of his talent, revealing considerable musical richness.

Even though in the world music community, his reputation was high, record sales were not high enough for Virgin and in April 91 they decided not to renew Youssou N’dour’s contract.

1992: "Eyes open"

In Dakar in 91, the artist invited the black American film director Spike Lee to a show-tribute to Nelson Mandela. At a time when Youssou had no record label contract, Spike Lee contacted him shortly after to produce a new album. This was "Eyes Open", released in Spring of 92. It was recorded in Dakar with his group and Jean-Philippe Rykiel in a very modern studio belonging to Youssou and the 14 titles were sung in English, Wolof and French. The brass sections and mixing were added in New York. "Africa remembers" is a song dedicated to the black diaspora and was chosen as the backing to the promotional video accompanying the album release, naturally enough directed by Spike Lee. 

In July of the same year, he did another tour in France, playing at the Paris Bataclan on 15 and 16 October. But it was the following year that he pulled off a major coup by organising a truly creative show. On 17 July, during the "Paris Quartier d’été" festival, the Paris Opera House (Garnier) opened its doors to Youssou N’dour for "Africa Opera", a spectacle around the theme of African identity, with the participation of Angélique Kidjo, Aïcha Kone and Djanka Diabaté. This type of event is extremely rare in the temple of lyric art and is what made it so exceptional. 


Youssou himself admits that his music was taking a long time to be accepted abroad. However, with the single "Seven Seconds" a duet with Neneh Cherry, but with no particularly African sound, he became known to the general public, usually more attracted to British/American music. It was a commercial hit world-wide (1,500,000 copies sold) and enabled him to break through on the international scene.

In 94, the new album benefited from the fame of "Seven Seconds". Its title was "Wommat" (The Guide) and quickly entered the European charts, proof that the Senegalese star had finally conquered markets outside Africa. It includes a cover of a Bob Dylan song, "Chimes of Freedom", and "Undecided" the single remixed by the French duo Deep Forest. Youssou here aims to be the musical guide for all his followers, whose numbers are swollen by every one of his regular tours in Europe and West Africa.

Ever the adventurer, the "Prince of Mbalax" voyaged into the traditional world of the African "griots" from whom he is descended and paid tribute to them by singing with Yandé Codou Sène, a major personality on the Senegal scene, on a magnificent album entitled "Voices of the Heart of Africa", a collection of traditional songs and ballads, co-produced with the German label World Network in 1996. On 20 September, jointly with Papa Wemba, he won the "best African artist" prize at the first African music awards organised in South Africa.

Goal !

In 97, the two artists got together for the International Committee of the Red Cross, with a number of other African musicians, on a song entitled "So why?", written by Wally Badarou and calling for African reconciliation.

But the highlight of Youssou N’dour’s career in 1998 was his participation in the Football World Cup in France. The song "la Cour des grands" with the Belgian singer Axelle Red as special guest, was chosen by Michel Platini - in charge of organising this major event - as the official hymn. A great football fan and internationally acclaimed, Youssou N’dour broadened his image yet further.

Later that year the Senegalese star also guested on Alan Stivell's album "1 Duar". Youssou fans were still eagerly awaiting the release of a new album by their favourite world music star. But Youssou did not actually get round to recording a new album that year. Much to music fans' delight, he did manage to record four new cassettes in '98, however.

In the spring of the following year Youssou brought the house down when he performed in New York at the famous Hammerstein Ballroom. This memorable concert even included a special guest appearance by the legendary American star Stevie Wonder.

Youssou rocketed back into the music news in February 2000 with a new album entitled "Joko" (From Village to Town). This album, aimed at the international market, required several long months in the studio and Youssou pulled out all the stops to make his new international album a success. "Joko" featured contributions from an impressive range of guest stars including Wyclef (from The Fugees whom Youssou had met in London) who worked on three tracks. Peter Gabriel and Sting also put in an appearance, providing guest vocals on one track each. "Joko" found the Senegalese star breaking away from pure African sounds to experiment with international pop - a move which Youssou explained was fully intentional on his part.

Youssou managed to fuse the two sides of his music - i.e. traditional African sounds and international pop - when he performed his "Grand Bal" mega-show in Paris, taking Bercy stadium by storm on October 21st 2000. The singer had arranged for a large contingent of his Senegalese fans to be in the audience that night and the crowd went wild as soon as he took to the stage. Youssou's "Grand Bal" was divided into two parts. The singer kicked off his concert with a series of duets featuring an impressive range of international guest stars (including Cesaria Evora, Zazie, Passi and Peter Gabriel). Then, after a long interval, Youssou returned to the stage to play traditional African tunes which kept the audience dancing all night long.

A remarkable singer and musician and experienced businessman, the Senegalese star seems to want to explore every possible avenue of musical creation. He produces other artists such as Cheikh Lô in order to stimulate the African artistic movement, to help give it a structure and improve its chances of making the cross-over. An undertaking of this scale in no way intimidates the "Child of the Medina"!

In February 2001 Youssou N'Dour launched a fund-raising project in collaboration with the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees). The world music star recorded the album "Building Bridges" with a group of musicians living in exile from their homelands and put the profits towards education programmes for refugee children.

2002: "Nothing's in Vain"

In October 2002, Youssou paid tribute to his Senegalese roots and his native tongue, Wolof, on a new album entitled "Nothing's in Vain." Traditional acoustic instruments such as the kora, the balafon and the xalam played a major role on this softer, mellower offering. But the song which really caused a stir in the French music world – and which was subsequently chosen as the first single release – was “So Many Men,” a duo with Pascal Obispo (which recalled Youssou's chart hit with UK star Neneh Cherry a few years earlier). Obispo also wrote two other tracks on Youssou’s album ("Africa Dream Again" and "Joker"). "Nothing's in Vain" also featured an interesting cover of a song by the late French ‘chanson’ star Georges Brassens ("Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux").

Youssou went on to kick off a major European tour on 31 October 2002, performing at the "Docks du sud" festival in Marseilles, in the south of France. This tour included a date at the legendary Olympia in Paris (on 10 November) where the Senegalese star was joined on stage by Pascal Obispo and Eric Serra (an old friend with whom Youssou had performed when he played his first Paris shows with Jacques Higelin at Bercy stadium).

As usual, Christmas found Youssou heading back to Dakar for his traditional mega-concert at Demba Diop stadium. The singer, who continues to live in the Senegalese capital, returns home whenever he can to recharge his batteries and touch base with his family. (He has four children with his wife, Mamie Camara, whom he married in 1990).

In March 2003, Youssou was to have performed an extensive tour of North America, playing dates across 38 different towns and cities between 26 March and 15 May. But on 7 March Youssou cancelled his mega-tour, citing major political differences with the U.S. over the government’s handling of the Iraq crisis.

On 31 May 2003, Youssou organised another mega-concert at Bercy stadium in Paris. The singer recreated the ambience of his Paris mega-concert in Dakar on 9 August.

2003: "Sant Allah" ("Allah-Egypte")

In November 2003, Youssou released a new cassette album in Senegal entitled "Sant Allah." This album marked a radical break from his previous work, featuring a mix of acoustic and mystic ballads based on devotional Islamic songs. "Sant Allah" was recorded with an Egyptian orchestra with the collaboration of arranger Fati Salama. As a practising Sufi Muslim, Youssou said he felt the need to prove his attachment to his roots and the spiritual tradition he had inherited from his mother (a Tidiane), his father (a Mouride) and learnt through the teachings of devout cheikhs in Senegal.

On 22 May 2004, Youssou N'Dour organised a mega-concert at Bercy stadium in Paris, thrilling the crowd with his on-stage performance with his band, the Super Etoile. Meanwhile, the album “Allah-Egypte” (the CD version of “Sant Allah) was released on the international music scene. Youssou gave the public a taste of his new repertoire when he performed at the Festival of World Sacred Music in the Moroccan town of Fez (28 May-5 June 2004). After the festival he embarked upon an extensive American tour.

"Allah Egypte" proved to be a huge hit, selling over 400,000 copies worldwide. And on 13 February 2005, Youssou won a prestigious Grammy Award for ‘best contemporary world music album of the year.’

In March 2005, Youssou was active on the fund-raising front once again, co-organising Africa Live, a collective concert against malaria. Africa Live was staged in Dakar and featured performances by an impresive number of African stars including Tiken Jah Fakoly, Corneille, Manu Dibango and the Orchestra Baobab. A 50,000-strong crowd turned out to support the cause.

Meanwhile, "Youssou N'Dour, l'enfant de la Médina", a biography of the singer written by his manager, Michelle Lahana, hit bookstores in France.

"Retour à Gorée"

2006 was a busy year for Youssou who got involved in a wide range of new projects. The singer began the year starring in Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s road movie documentary "Retour à Gorée", the camera following him as he hooked up with various jazzmen across New Orleans, Atlanta and New York and rehearsed and performed locally with them. The film evoked the painful past of slavery and charted the influence West African music has exerted on American styles such as blues and jazz. The film ended up coming full circle with Youssou taking his new band back to Senegal to play an emotional concert together on Gorée (an island off the coast of Dakar renowned as a major slave port).

March 2007 saw the release of "Amazing Grace", a feature film by the British director Michael Apted retracing the history of the abolition of slavery in 18th-century England. Youssou played the role of a former Nigerian slave who went on to become a writer and poet.

Around the same time, back in Senegal, the leader of Le Super Etoile brought out a new studio album, "Alsaama Day" (hello) featuring eight original new songs. The album was intended to silence critics who had claimed that Youssou appeared to be running out of inspiration. Youssou went on to kick off an extensive national tour on 9 June 2007.

In July, Youssou opened the 41st Montreux jazz festival with his "Retour à Gorée Jazz Project." Prior to his concert, Youssou organised a protest march through the streets of Montreux, campaigning for an end to the conflict in Darfur. The protest march attracted a big turn-out and considerable media attention.

Later that night, Youssou took to the stage at Miles Davis Hall, playing a heavily jazz-influenced repertoire accompanied by Moncef Genoud (piano), Idriss Muhammad (drums), Grégoire Maret (harmonica), Pyeng Theadgill (vocals) and James Cammack (double bass). As the musicians played, extracts from the "Retour à Gorée" documentary, shot in Senegal and the U.S., were projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage. Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s film went on to win a number of prestigious awards (including the Festival du Réel à Nyons and the Prix Suissimage).

Youssou returned to the recording front with a new album, "Rokku Mi Rokka (Give & Take)", at the end of October. This time round, he drew on traditional rhythms from northern Senegal for inspiration, although m'balax made its presence felt on several tracks. Thirteen years after their hit single "Seven Seconds", Youssou teamed up with Neneh Cherry once again on a track entitled "Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling.)"

After performing a one-off date at Le Bataclan, in Paris, on 5 November 2007, Youssou and his group flew off to North America where they played no less than 17 dates in three weeks, assuring concerts all the way from New York and Los Angeles to the Canadian city of Montreal. After his show in Washington, Youssou was invited to the White House to speak on behalf of an anti-malaria campaign, just one of the many causes the singer is involved in. In February 2008, the singer went on to sponsor the micro-credit programme "Birima", putting 200 million African CFA francs (over 300,000 euros) at his compatriots' disposition to help fund small companies and local entrepreneurs.

After returning to France in March 2008, Youssou performed another series of concerts which culminated in his "Grand Bal" at Bercy stadium, in Paris, on 5 April. In July, he and his group headlined at a number of leading music festivals, bringing the house down when they played in Carthage, Tunisia, and in the Moroccan town of Agadir. At the end of September, Youssou performed a special fund-raising concert at Le Grand Rex, in Paris, donating profits to various humanitarian aid organisations.

On 17 April 2009, Youssou N’Dour performed with the Super Etoile de Dakar at the prestigious Salle Pleyel in Paris. A few months later, in September, he released a new song, “Leep mo lëndëm” (all is dark), only available on the Internet. The song denounces the Senegalese state’s immobilism in the face of the recurrent floods and constant electricity cuts suffered by inhabitants.

2010: "Dakar-Kingston"

The Senegalese high priest of music was back on 8 March 2010 with a new album, “Dakar-Kingston”. The opus is a reggae-style take on his repertoire (“Medina”, “Don’t Walk Away”, etc.), in homage to Bob Marley, who had a great influence on Youssou. Recorded in Senegal and Jamaica, the disc was orchestrated by Tyron Downie, ex-Wailer and Bob Marley’s former associate. “Dakar-Kingston” also included appearances from Patrice, Ayo and Morgan Heritage. The tour to accompany the release included a date in Paris’s Olympia on 23 March. 

On 31 March, Elisabeth Chai Vasarhely’s documentary, “I Bring What I Love”, came out in French cinemas. It was an intimate portrait of Youssou N’Dour, including footage of him at prayer and with his family.

The fifty-year-old singer celebrated ten years of his now famous “Grand African Ball” in Bercy, Paris, on 19 June 2010, before a 17,000-strong audience.

On 1 September, he launched his own television station, Télévision Futurs Médias, after receiving official authorisation. 

The artist was increasingly involved in politics, and created “Fekke ma ci bollé” (“I’m here, so I’m part of it” in Wolof), a citizen’s initiative aimed at supporting a candidate at the 2012 presidential elections.
In May 2011, Yale University awarded Youssou N’Dour an honorary doctorate to commemorate his 30-year career.
In September of the same year, he visited refugee camps in Dabaab, Kenya, mainly harbouring Somalis. After almost 20 years as president of Unicef, N’Dour called on Africans to take action to fight against the disasters affecting the continent, like the drought in the Horn of Africa.
2012: Minister of Culture and Tourism

Clearly displaying his political ambition, N’Dour declared his intention to stand for the Senegalese presidential elections scheduled for February 2012. When the constitutional council rejected his candidature, he chose to back Macky Sall, who was opposing the outgoing president, Abdoulaye Wade. In April, one month after Macky Sall’s election as president of the Senegalese Republic, N’Dour was named Minister of Culture and Tourism in the new government.
Following intense flooding in Senegal in August, the minister gave an exceptional performance in September at a charity concert. With three other great names of the Senegalese music scene: Omar Pène, Ismaël Lô and Thione Seck, he played in Dakar to raise money for victims of the catastrophic weather.
In May he was awarded the Polar Music Prize 2013 in Stockholm, to reward his contribution to world music of all genres. 
After losing his portfolio as Minister of Culture, on 2 September 2013 he dropped the Tourism part. He was however named advisor to the presidency, with a title of minister, although his functions were unclear.
It was time for the musician to get back on stage: Youssou N’Dour returned to the Palais Omnisport de Paris-Bercy on 14 October for a huge show involving 26 performers playing music, dancing and singing, including his young compatriots Pape Diouf and Aida Samb.
January 2014 

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