By Norm Dixon
Renowned throughout Africa and Europe for spectacular concerts, Youssou N'Dour and the 12-piece Le Super Etoile De Dakar are touring in March. N'Dour, an undisputed "superstar" of World Music, is credited with doing more to popularise African music than almost any other artist.
World Music combines indigenous music styles and instruments, a complex web of external musical influences spread by trade, mass communication and migration, with state of the art instrumentation and recording techniques.
Youssou N'Dour and the modern music of Senegal illustrate well this process. Senegal was part of the Mali empire in the 14th century. Part of the thriving culture that survived was the music of musicians known as griots.
Griots were society's social commentators and historians. They played the kora (a large harp), the balafon (which resembles a wooden xylophone) and a variety of drums, the most important being the tama or talking drum.
In neighbouring Guinea, a radical program of cultural rediscovery and rehabilitation began following independence in 1958. It soon spread across Guinea's borders.
The ancient music of the kora, balafon and tama began to be combined with the popular Cuban rumbas, US soul and jazz of Dakar's night-life. Younger musicians steeped in the music of Jimi Hendrix and Santana rediscovered their Senegalese heritage and sought out griots, above all tama players, to join their bands.
In 1978 Youssou N'Dour reworked griot rhythms into an electric form and christened it "mbalax". Mbalax originally was a percussion rhythm played throughout Wolof-speaking Senegal. N'Dour added electric guitars and keyboards, playing the parts of the kora and balafon, to traditional drums. He has continued to enrich mbalax by plundering the world's rhythms for inspiration.
N'Dour has modernised Senegalese music while maintaining the griot tradition of social commentary and criticism. His 18 albums contain traditional folk songs, songs telling the history of slavery, celebrations of city life and songs that discuss the problems faced by rural people migrating to the city and a myriad of other topics.
The people hang on N'Dour's every word. His most recent album, Set, unleashed a spontaneous youth movement. Local organisations mobilised young people to take over the streets, clean them up and decorate Dakar's walls with slogans and symbolic art.
In 1986, N'Dour wrote "Nelson Mandela" to tell the truth about South Africa. In 1990 he contributed a song to the Viva Mandela video project, and performed at the huge Wembley concert in Mandela's honour. In 1988, he toured the world with Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Sting and Bruce Springsteen for the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! concerts. With the song "Shakin' The Tree", N'Dour expressed support for women's rights. The Set album also contains the song "Toxiques" which condemns multinational corporations' dumping of toxic waste in Africa.
N'Dour tour dates are:
Friday March 6, Belvoir Amphitheatre, Perth.
Sunday, March 8, Enmore Theatre, Sydney.
Wednesday, March 11 Melbourne Concert Hall.
Friday, March 13 and Saturday, March 14, WOMAD Festival, Adelaide.