A Senegal-born international superstar finds a familiar spirit in Jamaica
For Senegalese vocal legend Youssou N’Dour, making a reggae album was all about completing a circle. After all, one of reggae’s most prominent strands of DNA comes from the music of African slaves brought over during the 1800s by European-held slaves—a connection that was particularly important to the music of reggae’s greatest legend, Bob Marley. “I’m trying to know the music of the people who left Africa as slaves,” N’Dour says.
For Dakar-Kingston—recorded, as the title suggests, in his native Dakar and Jamaica’s capital city—N’Dour called upon producer Tyrone Downie, former keyboardist for Marley’s backing band the Wailers. Using both African and Jamaican musicians, including veteran Jamaican guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, N’Dour reimagines some of his own classic tunes as reggae grooves.
It is the two songs bookending the album that perhaps best exemplify that connection between reggae and mbalax, the Senegalese dance music that N’Dour helped popularize in the 1970s as a member of the popular band Étoile de Dakar. Opening Dakar-Kingston is a new original simply titled “Marley”—co-written by Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens—and the closer is a heartfelt cover of Marley’s own “Redemption Song.” The latter, N’Dour says, “is really close to me because of the content and because of the power coming from this simple song with guitar.”
N’Dour says it wasn’t difficult to adjust his exuberant singing style to conform to the easier-going reggae rhythms. “When you do mbalax music,” he says, “it’s really complicated, so you are more involved. But when you do reggae music, there is a lot of space for my voice.” On the new album N’Dour switches easily between vocalizing in French, English and his native Wolof. Naturally, that means that when he performs in places like the United States and Europe, many listeners are unable to understand the lyrics. But that doesn’t worry him. “People get the ambience of the music,” says N’Dour, 51, who has collaborated in the past with such western fans as Sting, Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry. “When I started out, people in the U.S. said they only listened to music from the U.S., but now more people are open to listening to world music.”