Youssou N’Dour may be the best singer you’ve never heard of, despite his 20-year-plus international career, his numerous humanitarian endeavors and his place on Time’s list of the planet’s 100 most influential people. In his native Senegal, however, his popularity runs so deep that he could run for president and would likely win in a landslide — although he has consistently quashed any rumors of political ambition. A champion of human rights and justice, N’Dour is both solid citizen of the world and first citizen of his homeland.
N’Dour’s music has oscillated between groundbreaking globopop experimentations and keeping the home fires burning, between sweeping social statements and simple morality tales drawn from Senegalese traditions. He helped invent mbalax in the 1980s, the rip-roaring urban sound of Dakar grounded in talking-tama-drum rhythms and blown up by his seriously funky Super Étoile band. N’Dour’s also a sucker for the power ballad and usually gets away with it, for one very good reason — he possesses one of music’s most awesome, sincere and soulful voices.
Since the late ’80s, N’Dour has gone planetary, starting with his stunning background wail on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and building with a series of outward-looking albums of mixed artistic and commercial success, including Set, The Guide (Wommat) and Joko (The Link). He also continued to release albums for his devoted fan base, with songs either not found on his international releases or mixed differently for local consumption.
His last three releases — Nothing’s in Vain (Coono Du Réér), 2004’s Grammy-winning Egypt and the just-released Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) — reveal a more pensive, though no less worldly, N’Dour as explorer of his homeland’s deep-rooted spirituality and vivid traditional sonic textures. Egypt stands out as a one-of-a-kind accomplishment, a celebration of Senegalese Sufi Islam recorded mainly in Cairo, inspired in conception and gorgeously profound in execution. N’Dour looks north on Rokku Mi Rokka; not to French chanson or American R&B, but to Senegal’s northern desert lands that roll into Mali and Mauritania — areas that possess a distinct folkloric rootstock. It’s not a new concept: city boy goes in search of elusive muse in the simpler, rural sounds of the backcountry. In N’Dour’s case, these Sahelian campfire songs hit a fresh, creative sweet spot.
The bluesy northern tinges channeled by N’Dour and friends may not be as overt as those tapped by fellow countryman Baaba Maal, but they still mark a distinctive change from Super Étoile’s usual lurking-behind-the-downbeat, cross-rhythmic sophistication. The grooves flow in a deceptively effortless, circular way. Guitars riff jingle-jangle jaunty, tama and sabar flutter and pop. The front-porch mojo gets a boost from special guests like former Ali Farka Touré sideman Bassekou Kouyate, whose xalam harp-lute provides down-home pluck ’n’ twang.
The arrangements leave the Man With the Voice plenty of room for his talk-sung Wolof declamations as well as his nerve-exposing, full-throated exhortations on tunes like the sarcastic put-down “Sama Gàmmu” (“My Rival”) and “Létt Ma” (“Indecision”), a lover’s plea for her partner to “make up your mind already!” Stepping just outside the glow of the pastoral dance party, subtly morphed dancehall shuffles propel “Baay Faal” and “Sportif” across the arid soil.
N’Dour’s propensity for Big Pop wins out on the final two tracks, which dilute the album’s sonorous consistency. Gospelesque choruses and hefty drum thump fatten up “Xel” (“Think”), while Afro-club-funky “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)” — with N’Dour and Neneh Cherry reprising their “7 Seconds” partnership — comes off like a well-intentioned but commercial bonus track.
Seems N’Dour has not given up on his crossover dreams just yet.
YOUSSOU N’DOUR | Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) | Nonesuch Records
Youssou N’Dour and Super Étoile de Dakar play at UCLA’s Royce Hall, 8 p.m., Sat., Dec. 1.