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World Music Review

N'Dour Speaks Clearly in Any Language

November 17, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Youssou N'Dour has been a major international star since the '80s, yet the Senegalese singer still hasn't broken through to American audiences.

After his date Wednesday at the House of Blues, it was hard to understand why he has had such low visibility. Singing songs from his new album, "Joko," N'Dour was an extraordinarily compelling performer, his effectiveness aided by the fact that the spotlight was centered on him. (Peter Gabriel is also present on the U.S. release, and the European version also features duos with Sting and Wyclef Jean.)

Nonetheless, this was a distinctly Western-oriented, pop-flavored performance. N'Dour's 10-piece ensemble, Super Etoile, included several percussionists, a pair of keyboard players, bass, guitar and a backup singer. Fortunately, the undercurrent of Senegalese mbalax rhythms, a few spotlight appearances for Hassan Thiam's tama (talking drum) solos and the griot-like qualities of N'Dour's singing clearly defined the African roots of his music.

The program characteristically reflected his concerns about the problems and pleasures of life in Africa and elsewhere. And he made his points effectively, even to the majority of the overflow crowd that did not understand either the Wolof or French languages in which he sang most of his numbers.

Beyond the specifics of his lyrics, it was the remarkably diverse timbral qualities of his voice--his capacity to move from a cooing lyricism to a declamatory shout, his sheer abilities as a nonverbal storyteller--that underscored his communication. No wonder so many audience members felt compelled to leap onto the stage to express their appreciation in the passionate gyrations of African-style dancing.

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