Friday, June 30, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 010: Youssou N'Dour: The Lion and Set

I was lucky enough to be introduced to African music by people from Africa. I had played various styles from around the Continent for years (North African/Islamic ‘ud music, South African township jazz/kwela/Zulu styles, etc) but around 1990 I met various people from whom I had the good fortune to learn the music directly.

Most especially from my darlin’ collaborator Heather Maxwell Adou, who after growing up in Michigan spent high-school time in West Africa, then as a Peace Corps volunteer, then stayed on as a working musician. I learned a lot about music of Ghana, Mali, and Cote d’Ivoire from her; she taught me to play kamelengoni and balafon, I wrote a bunch of accompaniments for her traditional and original songs, and we did a series of gigs at which she sang and danced, I played and sang, and Rob Mulligan played percussion. Still some of my favorite music to play—but, as with a number of other genres, something I’ll only play anymore as a sideman—I need an expert leading the way.

I also had the chance to see Youssou N’Dour’s band around 1990 in Lexington, KY. I was playing in an eight-piece horn band (“Jif and the Choosy Mothers”) and we did a lot of reggae, South African, and Afro-Caribbean music. Way too hip for the rooms/college students we played for, but the players were excellent and we had a good time. I was later fired from that band for being insufficiently collegiate material (and I still owe Danny K a beating for that and worse sins—payback’s a mother, Danny, and I’ll find you some day).

Anyway, I’d seen Youssou on various videos, and had watched him blow Peter Gabriel off the stage singing guest vocals on In Your Eyes (with Gabriel’s happy assistance). We went down to see Youssou in KY, and this was the first time I’d ever seen a real African band: 10-12 players on stage, costumes swirling, fantastic virtuosity as the players casually switched from one instrument to another tune-by-tune, and the phenomenon of the animateur: the virtuoso dancer whose whole job is to dance, thereby “animating” the crowd to dash the band by showering them with money. It was an incredible show, largely featuring the material on The Lion.

Youssou was a child star in his native Senegal, and a prodigious money-maker with his band Super-Etoile du Dakar. Unlike many such, he went on to grow and mature as an adult musician, maintaining the fantastic groove-a-bility of the great African dance bands, but also developing a voice about national and international issues affecting his people. Like Fela Kuti, subject of a future posting, he understood the powerful voice a musician has in Africa—unlike Fela, he wasn’t so much a sociopath that governments felt they had to arrest, beat, or persecute him. The Lion and Set capture this new maturity. Youssou calls in a favor from Gabriel, who co-wrote and sings on the feminist anthem Shakin’ the Tree and Youssou pulls in New York session ace David Sancious to add keyboards. Set continues and deepens this trend, with beautiful cautionary and proverb-laden texts, power-house grooves (especially on Set and the reggae-flavored Miyoko), and fantastic global critique (Toxiques, which begins “rich countries make toxical waste..why should they send it to me?”).

Youssou has continued this full range of activities, building a state-of-the-art studio in Bamako and continuing to produce hit singles, which fuels everything else.

One of the great West African musicians.

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