Youssou N’Dour’s bedrock in Senegalese music and storytelling remains the hallmark of his artistic personality. In October 1959, he was born a traditional “Griot” singer. After two years in street theatre, Youssou’s career really started in 1972, when he was just thirteen. When Papa Samba Diop, known as Mba and leader of the Star Band in Dakar, passed away, Youssou sang a tribute to him, a song he composed onstage right there in Senegal’s Saint-Louis Stadium. “Everyone was still in tears, and I brought a little joy. I was vibrating. Mba was like a star fading from the sky.” At the end of his song, Youssou was given a standing ovation.
As a kid N’Dour used to go down to the beach at Soumbédioune in Dakar, collecting the little sucker-fish known as takgaal and roasting them on the spot. In the small hours of the morning, he could smell the ovens cooking pastries in the Medina, and in his mind he could already see himself onstage: his career was on the move.
In 1981, after leaving the Etoiles group in Dakar, Youssou founded the exemplary orchestra Super Etoile. In 1984 the group had its Parisian debut during Africa Fête, the African cultural festival set up by Mamadou Konté from Mali, and it featured in the great pan-African dances and events organised at the Bercy Omnisports stadium in Paris by its leader.
In 1990 came one of his most beautiful albums, Set, which included the song “Medina”, an elegy that was pure and filled with nostalgia, and featured a clear trumpet whose sound was almost Middle-Eastern. Every day he heard the muezzin’s calls to prayer, and some nights he could hear the voice of the Egyptian idol Oum Kalsoum.
After meeting Peter Gabriel in 1984, Youssou N’Dour joined Band Aid for Ethiopia; in 1988 he sang at Wembley when Nelson Mandela was freed, and then alongside Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen for Amnesty International.
By 1996 he was already famous worldwide thanks to “7 Seconds”, his duet with Neneh Cherry (released in 1994 on the album Wommat, which also featured his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”), and he recorded Voices of the Heart of Africa with the great Yandé Codou Sène in the pure Senegalese Griot tradition.
In 2003 he celebrated his becoming a Murid, following the spiritual path of Sufism, with the album Egypt, recorded in Cairo with an Egyptian orchestra conducted by Fati Salama. Two years later in 2005, this hymn to a tolerant Islam received a Grammy Award. The track “Shukran Bamba” gave fervent thanks to Sheik Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Murid brotherhood: “You taught me pardon and compassion, and the rejection of violence and arrogance.”
His latest album Dakar- Kingston released in 2010 pays tribute to legendary Jamaican singer Bob Marley and is an exploration of musical links with reggae.
In 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at Yale University and currently serves as Minister of Tourism in Senegal.
N’Dour remains a revered figure in his country and in the ever-growing Senegalese diaspora.