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N'Dour's Popularity Continues to Rise


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every African who loves music knows the name Youssou N'Dour. In fact, in 2004, Rolling Stone referred to N'Dour as perhaps the most famous African singer alive. For more than 30 years, the Senegalese artist has used musical sounds and textures from Africa and the West, with a voice that's been described as liquid silver.

Here in the U.S., many fans were first exposed to Youssou N'Dour when he collaborated with Peter Gabriel on the hit "In Your Eyes."

(Soundbite of song, "In Your Eyes")

Mr. YOUSSOU N'DOUR (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Youssou N'Dour is in the U.S. now for a national concert tour. We caught up with him in New York, and he was kind enough to talk to us.

Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. N'DOUR: Thank you.

MARTIN: So we just heard that little bit of you on Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," which helped you gain some new fans here in the U.S., I'm sure. Is it your desire to bridge the divide between Africa and the West or it that just a happy byproduct of what interests you musically?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah. I think, really, you know, the Peter Gabriel connection was interesting for me. I hope also for him. But it's the connection to make, you know, largest public, especially here, to listen a little bit of my voice, a little bit of my sound. And, yeah, it was really important for me and is kind of victor for my career, you know, for the large public.

MARTIN: Tell me about your new album. It's called "Rokku Mi Rokka"?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: And which, I think, translates to give and take. And first of all, what language is that in?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah. It's - the language of this new album is Toucouleur, you know, Wolof, the language, you know, I think the second language in Senegal. Yeah. This album and can - the music, the roots of reggae, Cuban music, blues music left Africa a long time ago. And the idea was to try to create all these things that happened long time ago and this is really the idea of this album. And the content is about, you know, simple story happening in the countryside, especially happening like in the north of Senegal, the board of Mauritania and Mali. That's really the content of this album.

MARTIN: One of the songs I want to hear a little bit is called "Tukki." Is that right?

Mr. N'DOUR: "Tukki." Yeah.

MARTIN: "Tukki" or "Travel." And it talks about taking the time to see a bit of the world and then bringing that knowledge back home. Let's play a little bit then we'll talk about it.

(Soundbite of song, "Tukki")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in Toucouleur).

I tell people, you know, immigration, all these political things that are happening about traveling. Traveling is beautiful. It's great. You can travel in your mind and, you know, you can see how beauty, you know, the world and that different part of the world is just beautiful.

(Soundbite of song, "Tukki")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in Toucouleur).

MARTIN: There's just some lovely, lovely ideas in the song and, you know, I will admit, I am reading the translation. But it says taking time to travel for knowledge bring back what you've learned. You learn about another way of life when you travel. You can experience even a slow flying butterfly can sometimes fly to Europe. How fun it is to travel.

Mr. N'DOUR: The message is clear. Like, every way, traveling is beautiful. It's great.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with Senegalese singing sensation Youssou N'Dour. He's currently in the U.S. on a national concert tour.

Mr. N'DOUR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And speaking of traveling, apart from being a Grammy winning musician, being labeled African artist of the century - it's seems like a big - that's a big burden to carry. But you're also a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, focusing on fight against malaria and poverty. Talk to me about that, if you would.

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah. I think, really, music is power. Music is a language. Maybe for me, the first language. We can use it to develop lot of, you know, justice around the world. We can use it to tell people how important something like, you know, fights against malaria, rights for kids, emancipation for womans, the human rights. And, you know, I use my music to deliver such justice, you know, to people. I think it's more quicker to get people and to influence people to be maybe even they are minority, but they change, you know, what they think.

MARTIN: You think people really listen, or do you think they just want to hear your music?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah. I think, you know, both - you know, a lot of people doesn't, you know, they'd really listen to music, dance to music. But even if they are, you know, the minority, is important for me, you know. I use my music to deliver message.

MARTIN: We're seeing a lot of political activism by musicians these days, like Bono from U2, who's met with the G8 leaders about the issue of the debt in Africa. Do you feel that musicians now are called not just to use their art to attract attention to a message, but to engage directly with your local leaders?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah, I think, really, you know, there's a lot of opportunity for people who have face to face to talk to their leaders. I think a lot of importance to tell them what you think to bring them the message. And I have a chance for Africa to be with Bono in G8. We talked to the leaders about Africa, talked to them, convert them to do more, to iterate the cities around the world. I think it should important, and it doesn't mean anything to try to get a better world.

MARTIN: And, you know, sometimes people don't always appreciate everybody's involvement in these kinds of - this kind of activism. I remember your appearance in the Live 8 concert. I mean, sometime, you know, people were -some people were critical. They thought that you were put in roles that were tokenist or exploitative of your fame - some similar grumbling around your appearance in the film "Amazing Grace," where you played the African, you know, abolitionist. Does that ever concern you, or do you think that that's just people ruminating?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah, I think really, you know, yes, sometimes it's a little difficult. But I - what I would think is I need more, I think, you know, I share personally the role of playing for Africa, bringing the image of Africa, and sometimes is happening difficult. The Live 8 was, yeah, difficult, you know, celebrating Africa doesn't invite a lot of African artists. You know, I denounce it.

MARTIN: At least not on the main stage. I mean, you were one of the featured performers, but there were other artists…

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: …but they were secondary sort of satellite stages around the world. And I think you were the only person who was really given a showcase is, I think, the argument, the criticism.

Mr. N'DOUR: Yes, yeah. I think it's difficult. You know, I told them, you know, something like that is not going to be happening again, because some situation, you can use it to do something really great, even TV need to have a rock star or something. People - a very popular artist, we can use these opportunities to bring people together.

MARTIN: Speaking about the question of engaging with political leaders, there's some interesting news out of Senegal right now. The government has released four journalists who were accused of offending the president, which raised concerns about freedom of expression. Is this ever a concern for you as an artist? Do you ever find yourself having to concern yourself about the content of your music, out of concern about repercussions?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah, I think this is very important. People - like in Senegal, is a country of more things happening, because it's a democratical country before all these government are in the place. And yeah, sometimes, something will happen between the freedom and, you know, what the government think about it. I think we still really having vigilance about, you know, what's going to happen.

And I think people also, a lot of people are supporting to keep the democractic things, and this is why even something happened between the government and the journalists, you know, the next day, people can talk about it and release the journalists. And, you know, I think it's really good democracy to know even if sometimes, they do something more difficult the government. I didn't see any reason to bring four journalists to prison. I don't know why.

MARTIN: On your latest album, "Give and Take," the first track "4-4-44." I'm not sure if I'd call it political. Maybe - what would you call it? Nationalist? Kind of a nationalist…

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah, I think it's nationalist. It's really not political. You know, it's celebration the nation. Yes.

MARTIN: What inspired you to do this song now?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah, because 44 years after Senegal have this celebration happening April 4, 2004, 44 years inspired me to create this rhythm and this melody, happening three years ago now. And I feel, you know, because of what I'm talking about on this album is happening in the north of Senegal, have a song who create relation between all the part of the country to celebrate the national ones.

MARTIN: Sort of as a celebration of national unity hymn.

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song, "4-4-44")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Were you thinking - what? Were you thinking national anthem? Were you thinking big family reunion?

Mr. N'DOUR: No. I'm thinking about national things. You know, people think about the nation, about, you know, the power of the culture, everything.

MARTIN: And I wanted to mention that you are multilingual and you speak English - as people can tell, obviously - and French and Wolof, which is I believe your traditional language. And do the lyrics feel differently or do they mean something different depending on what language you're in? Do you see what I'm saying? Do you experience the words differently, depending on what language you're singing in?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah, I think really, it's really important. I don't think, you know, what I'm talking about in Wolof is going to be meaning something for in English if I was singing in English, and people are going to get, you know, difficult just to know exactly what I'm talking about. I think language, you know, create the content, create also the environment, what you're talking about.

MARTIN: You do switch languages, though, on the album. Are you just making the rest of us almost feel bad who can't speak four languages like you can? Or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. N'DOUR: Yes, I think, you know, I'm better in Wolof, you know, my main language, you know. But, you know, I'm willing to sing a lot the other language, also.

MARTIN: The collaboration, though, goes both ways. I mean, you've collaborated with, you know, a number of stars in the West that I think many people would know, names like, you know, Peter Gabriel, of course, Annie Lennox, Sting and Paul Simon. But by far, your biggest hit, I think, has been "7 Seconds."

Mr. N'DOUR: Yes.

MARTIN: How did that come about?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah. A long time ago, when we were, you know, I met Neneh in doing the Mandela show. And she was talked about, you know, doing something with me.

MARTIN: Neneh Cherry.

Mr. N'DOUR: And we decide - Neneh Cherry. And a year after that, one day someone who are between us and do the best she can to bring us together, and we coming here in New York, I remember, 1993 and doing the record, you know, without the record company, doing the song just because we were thinking about music. And then after that, you know, people realized it was, you know, a magical song.

MARTIN: I think we have to play some of it.

(Soundbite of song, "7 Seconds")

Mr. N'DOUR and Ms. NENEH CHERRY (Singer): (Singing) It's not a second, but seven seconds away. But just as long as I stay, I'll be waiting. I'll be waiting. I'll be waiting.

MARTIN: I still have to ask. It's, you know, it's a lovely song and, you know, people love it, but did you feel like sort of an impostor singing an English, like you were playing somebody else?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yes. I think this song is magical. It's something really different, there's something really special. Yeah, it's sometimes better if you're talking the people English speaking just to sing in English, because people get the message directly. And the example is from "7 Seconds."

MARTIN: And, of course, you've returned the favor. You've gone back to your connection with Neneh Cherry on your latest album, and you've got a track, "Wake Up (It's Africa Calling)."

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Sort of - come full circle, there?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah, "Africa Calling" is really totally different than "7 Seconds." It's a song about, you know, the face of Africa people didn't know here. And it's the way also we play the song and we record the song is really more African than "7 Seconds." It's really something different, but every time I have the opportunity to do something with Neneh, it's big pleasure for me.

MARTIN: Because how come? Why do you think you all work so well together?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah. Because, you know, I think she focused on, you know, what's happening in Africa because one part of her are Africans. And also, I'm also the one who try to be the link between Africa and the rest of the world. We have, you know, this connection. And her voice and humanity make me really close to what Neneh (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Wake Up (It's Africa Calling)")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. CHERRY: (Rapping) Pay attention to me. My name is Neneh C. It's my history, the African in me. Just before I convene (unintelligible) in defeat and have my feet on the ground (unintelligible).

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing) Wake up, good morning. This is Africa calling. (unintelligible). This is (unintelligible). Wake up, good morning. This is Africa calling. (unintelligible). This is Africa calling.

Mr. N'DOUR: Mm.


(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You like that, huh?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: You like what you heard. I read in an interview with you once where you said it kind of makes you crazy that in the West, people want to hear, like, the traditional African sound, or whatever. You know, they want to hear traditional sounds. They want to hear you speak in your language. They want to hear - but back home, they want to hear, what, techno? They want to hear a lot of, you know, amplification. They want to hear a more Western sound. Is it still that way, or have you kind of gotten people around who are you are and what you're thinking, that you can do both?

Mr. N'DOUR: Yeah. But in the same time, they really want African expression, even they need more electrical sound, you know, a keyboard, electrical guitar, drums, but they really prefer the African expression, and it make me crazy. And live here, I think people are waiting for something more real, more traditional. And, yeah, I can do both, but it make me just crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Mr. N'DOUR: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Youssou N'Dour's new album is called "Rokku Mi Rokka," or "Give and Take."

Mr. N'DOUR: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: It's in the stores now. Hopefully, you can catch him on his North American tour through December 5th. We caught up with him in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. N'DOUR: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Wake Up (It's Africa Calling)")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing) Wake up, good morning. This is Africa calling.

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.