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Ethnic/World

Senegal sounds

He's a political man: Youssou N'Dour at the Majestic in Detroit
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Published 6/30/2004

When our country trudged forth into war with Iraq, hundreds of prominent actors, artists and musicians were quick to display some form of protest, be it a newly penned song, a heartfelt message on a Web site, or a barbed comment delivered while accepting an award.

Senegalese musical superstar Youssou N’Dour took things one step further: He canceled his entire North American tour.

“It is my strong conviction that the responsibility for disarming Iraq should rest with the United Nations,” N’Dour said in a statement released in March of last year. “As a matter of conscience I question the United States government’s apparent intention to commence war in Iraq.”

At the time, N’Dour said he recognized many Americans shared his feelings, and apologized to fans for the cancellation.

“It is my fervent wish to return to the U.S. in better times,” he said, “But I find it impossible to imagine playing concerts in America when such grave issues are confronting all the peoples of the world.”

Apparently that time is now (Iraqi prisoner torture aside) and N’Dour is returning to the States again, rolling into Detroit this Sunday, ironically enough, on America’s most patriotic day, the Fourth of July.

N’Dour’s management denied an interview with Metro Times, citing the musician’s jam-packed schedule.

However, when British newspaper The Independent recently managed to snag N’Dour and ask about his decision to cancel the tour, he had the following to say to reporter James McNair:

“I am not Bruce Springsteen, but I wanted to use my voice in the U.S. It was to be my biggest tour there — eight weeks, traveling everywhere — and so it was the right occasion to say, ‘I must protest against the war in Iraq; I must cancel.’ I don’t have a problem with the American people — I have a problem with their president. I’m not happy with the way he and others decide to resolve problems without the United Nations.”

Although he may not be a household name this side of the Atlantic, N’Dour is regarded as Africa’s most successful artist, and one of the most popular worldbeat musicians performing today.

His music is a mix of Senegalese traditional music and storytelling; it falls into a genre called mbalax, a mix of Senegalese rhythms, Cuban percussion and snatches of westernized pop and R&B — N’Dour also tosses in a little jazz, reggae and hip hop for good measure.

N’Dour began to gain worldwide popularity in the 1980s; he was first introduced to mainstream American audiences when he performed with Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel on their U.S. tours; he’s also collaborated with Sting, Neneh Cherry, and Wyclef Jean. In addition to his musical career, N’Dour has always been politically aware; in 1985 in Dakar, he organized a concert in support of the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign of the time, and has performed with Amnesty International music festivals. He’s a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations and an ambassador to UNICEF, and regularly performs for children with AIDS.

Rick Steiger is the bandleader for Detroit’s Sun Messengers, and runs www.africassette.com, an online store specializing in hard-to-find African and worldbeat music. In fact, Youssou N’Dour was responsible in part for Steiger’s decision to start the company.

“One of my goals was importing Youssou N’Dour’s African cassettes,” he says. “At the time, he’d issue these cassettes in Senegal only, and they were highly sought after by African music collectors, so that was sort of the foundation of my mailing order business.

“He has one of the greatest voices in the world,” continues Steiger. “While he certainly wasn’t the first to take traditional music and rhythms and modernize it, he’s certainly been the most successful internationally. He does great songs, and he’s a very great artist.”

As for the tour cancellation last year, Steiger was disappointed for worldbeat music fans in Detroit, where he says international acts often fail to stop.

“I appreciate his statement, and I certainly understand, but the bottom line was Youssou N’Dour fans aren’t going to be the people who supported the war anyways.”

 

See Youssou N’Dour on Sunday, July 4, at the Majestic Theatre (4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-9700 for more information.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail sklein@metrotimes.com.

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