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Youssou N'Dour: The Voice Of Senegal

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Youssou N'Dour: The Voice Of Senegal

Youssou N'Dour: The Voice Of Senegal

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Rolling Stone called him the most famous African singer alive. The U.K. magazine Folk Roots dubbed him African Artist of the 20th Century.

We're talking about Youssou N'Dour. He's a musical chameleon capable of a seductive whisper or a siren's cry. N'Dour started performing in Dakar, Senegal, in the early 1970s. Today, Youssou N'Dour runs a nightclub, a record label and a television station and is even rumored to be a future candidate for president of Senegal.

He is also one of NPR's 50 Great Voices. Banning Eyre tells us why.

BANNING EYRE: Most people's first blast of Youssou N'Dour came in 1986 with the song "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel.

(Soundbite of song, "In Your Eyes")

Mr. YOUSSOU N'DOUR (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: But for Senegalese, N'Dour was already a superstar. Latin music was the rage there when N'dour's first band Etoile de Dakar released this song, "Thiely." Listen to 20-year-old N'Dour on the lead vocal, comparing his lover to a free bird, beautiful but elusive.

(Soundbite of song, "Thiely")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: The now iconic voice is all there - elastic, fluid, rich and loaded with personality. Beyond that, Etoiles de Dakar's percussion-driven sound lays out a blueprint for the future of Senegalese music.

A new style, mbalax, was on the rise. Rooted in local African rhythms, mbalax would allow N'Dour's voice to soar with a whole new freedom.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: Over the years, N'Dour has shape-shifted his sound to accommodate soul, funk, progressive rock, reggae and even religious Islamic music. It hasn't always been a smooth ride, but N'Dour has remained on top, without question Senegal's most beloved singer.

(Soundbite of song, "Immigres")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: This song, "Immigres," sent a message to Senegalese immigrants struggling in Europe that they could always come home. It's a message N'Dour has lived up to. While other African stars have opted for comfortable lives in foreign cities, especially Paris, N'Dour has kept his base in Dakar.

And when he did get his international break, he sidestepped Paris and set course for London and an alliance with Peter Gabriel.

(Soundbite of song, "Shakin' the Tree")

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

EYRE: N'Dour's art-rock phase proved disappointing, exciting neither his home crowd nor his growing international audience. But he bounced back with a million-selling duet with Neneh Cherry, and he perfected the art of releasing mbalax albums for the Senegalese and more experimental works for the world.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: Placating such different audiences has proved tricky. N'Dour's religious album, "Egypt," was at first poorly received in Senegal. Islamic leaders took offense and the public seemed to want him to keep his beats on the dance floor. But when "Egypt" won a Grammy Award, N'Dour came out a hero.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. N'DOUR: (Singing in foreign language).

EYRE: That sort of pivot is characteristic. N'Dour's ability to morph from soul man to sage, from sharp-elbowed entrepreneur to potential politician has no parallel in modern African music. But it does lead some to wonder who Youssou N'Dour really is.

That mystery, along with N'Dour's ever fabulous voice, ultimately works in his favor. Listeners in Africa and around the world keep coming back to find out what this cultural colossus will come up with next.

For NPR News, I'm Banning Eyre.

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