The Polar Music Prize 2013 is awarded to Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. A West African griot is not just a singer, but a story teller, poet, singer of praise, entertainer and verbal historian. Youssou N’Dour is maintaining the griot tradition and has shown that it can also be changed into a narrative about the entire world. With his exceptionally exuberant band Super Étoile de Dakar (Dakar Star) and his musically ground breaking and political solo albums, Youssou N’Dour has worked to reduce animosities between his own religion, Islam, and other religions. His voice encompasses an entire continent’s history and future, blood and love, dreams and power.
The griot heritage
Youssou N’Dour, was born 1959 in Dakar, Senegal. His mother had roots within the griot culture and taught young N’Dour the musical skills of that tradition. A griot is a storyteller, poet and musician who perpetuates the oral tradition and history of a village or family.
Star band de Dakar
At the age of 12, N’Dour started to perform during gatherings and celebrations and his talent and amazing voice quickly gave him the opportunity to perform regularly with Star band de Dakar. The band was formed in the 1960s to celebrate the independence of Senegal, and it quickly became very popular at the night clubs of Dakar, playing Cuban dance music. Youssou N’Dour’s unique voice, tone and pitch together with his young age made him popular all across Senegal.
Étoile de Dakar and M'balax
N’Dour moved on from Star band and founded Étoile de Dakar with El Hadji Faye in 1978. Afro-cuban music was very popular at that time in Senegal and N’Dour felt the need to go back to of a more local but modern urban music. Inspired by the French influence of variété, jazz, soul and rhythm n’ blues and mixing it with traditional sabar rhythms and lyrics in wolof, the m’balax movement was born. M’balax music was played with both traditional instruments (such as sabar drums, tama des Laobés, djembe) and modern electric ones (guitar, bass, keyboards…). Dancers began using moves associated with sabar, and tipping the singers as if they were traditional griots. The mix was successful and the senegalese audience easily felt the connections with their older national culture.
Super Étoile de Dakar
Étoile de Dakar split up in 1981 and Youssou N’Dour founded Super Étoile de Dakar, who continued to spread the m’balax movement. SED performed for the first time in Europe in 1984, for the Africa Fête, an African cultural festival in Paris which welcomed the pioneers of afro-rock, Osibisa and Youssou N’Dour. The show was a triumph, and the tour continued into Germany, England, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Switzerland. In France, he made contact with the Celluloïd label who started to release Youssou N’Dour’s records worldwide.
The idol of Senegal rapidly became the ambassador for African music and went to promote it across the Atlantic for a three week North American tour in 1986. This was a further success and the American press agreed upon the talent and amazing performances of the showman Youssou N’Dour. Artists Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel rapidly discovered the band and its front man. Youssou N’Dour collaborated with Simon on Graceland and Gabriel on So. Super Étoile de Dakar toured as opening act for Peter Gabriel during his world tour for So. It was during his global tour of 1988 with stars such as Sting, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman that Youssou N’dour finally hit centre stage. The concerts were given on behalf of Amnesty International and this adventure completely changed his image and from a national icon he became a world-wide star.
In 1991 Youssou N’Dour was signed to director and actor Spike Lee’s label 40 Acres & A Mule. Spike Lee’s mission with his label was to “enlarge the legacy of great African-American music” which of course matched N’Dour’s musical intentions.
The first release Eyes Open, produced by N’Dour in his studio Xippi Studio in Dakar and featuring Super Etoile, got a Grammy Nomination. His ultimate world wide recognition came with album The Guide, released in 1994, including the major hit duet with Neneh Cherry, “Seven Seconds.” The single reached number one in several European countries and remained number one for 16 weeks in the French singles charts, un record!
In 1993, Youssou N’Dour tries out another aspect of his creativity when his opera Africa Opera premiered at the Opéra Garnier in Paris. The opera was a spectacle around the theme of African identity and featured Angélique Kidjo, Aïcha Kone and Djanka Diabaté. An exceptional event in a highly traditional but still magnificent environment.
In November 2003, Youssou released an album that was radically different from his previous works. It was first released on cassette in Senegal with the title Sant Allah. The album was a mix of acoustic and mystic ballads, versions of Islamic songs. Sant Allah was recorded with the Egyptian Fathy Salama Orchestra and inspired by N’Dour’s long lasting idol Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
After having worked for several years with connecting traditional Senegalese music to to a more modern sound, Youssou N’Dour felt the need to now prove the attachment to his spiritual roots, as a practising Sufi Muslim.
On 22 May 2004, Youssou N’Dour organised a big concert event at Bercy stadium in Paris, at the same time as Sant Allah was released on CD on the international music scene, now renamed Allah-Egypte. The album proved to be a huge hit, selling over 400,000 copies worldwide and won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Contemporary World Music Album of the Year.
The media man and politician
Youssou N’Dour has been called one of the most influential personalities from the African continent. He is a cultural profile in his country and has worked hard to spread West African culture around the world and to actively make changes in his own country. In 2003 he founded Groupe Futurs Médias based in Dakar. The company owns the biggest newspaper in Senegal L’Observateur, a radio station Radio Futurs Médias (RFM) and a TV Channel Télévision Futurs Médias. He has his own recording studio Xippi Studio in Dakar and his own record label Jololi since 1995, his sister is the CEO of the label. From April 2012 to October 2012, he was Senegal’s Minister of Tourism and Culture, and from October 2012 to September 2013 he was Minister of Tourism and Leisure.
Unity to the African continent
Youssou N’Dour’s aim with his music has been to bring unity to the African continent. As a man of the media and a fighter for citizens’ rights Youssou N’Dour is well aware of the political importance of origins, different cultures and music. Youssou N’Dour sees himself today as a modern griot, telling the story of west african culture to the world.
He has been active in different causes, – from wiping out the African debt to the battle against malaria. In 1985 he organized a concert for the release of Nelson Mandela. In March 2005, Youssou was active on the fund-raising front, co-organising Africa Live, a collective concert against malaria for the organisation Roll back Malaria.
Africa Live was staged in Dakar and featured performances by an impressive number of African stars including Tiken Jah Fakoly, Corneille, Manu Dibango and the Orchestra Baobab. N’Dour is also involved in Project Joko, an initiative to open Internet cafes throughout Africa, the Stock Exchange of Visions Project, and Darfur relief.
Stockholm, August 2013
Youssou N’Dour participated at the Polar Music Talks on August 26 at Rigoletto in Stockholm, where he was interviewed by John Paul Jones together with fellow Laureate Kaija Saariaho. On the evening after the Polar Music Prize ceremony, he did a spectacular show with his band Super Étoile de Dakar at the Concert Hall. At the ceremony he was honoured by among others Neneh Cherry, his singing companion on world wide hit 7 Seconds from 1994 and Swedish hip hop artist Timbuktu.