The King of mbalax proves why he is arguably Africa’s greatest living musical export
For those who want to explore African music, Youssou N’Dour’s unique sound should be as much as a staple of one’s introduction to music from Africa as Ali Farka Touré or Fela Kuti, hailing from Mali and Nigeria respectively. However, one must be warned that whilst N’Dour’s later work in which he delves into an array of different genres s full of value, to get the true essence of the man and his music, the album that you should begin with is the mbalax classic Immigrés recorded in 1984 (eventually released worldwide in 1988).
“It is clear that N’Dour is not discouraging Senegalese people from making explorations or extended sojourns in cities such as Paris, London and New York in hope for a better life, but is rather reminding them not to totally abandon their roots as Senegal has an almost magnetic quality which will always suck them back in”
Granted, if you are like me and new to world music as a genre, then it is perhaps unlikely that you will know what mbalax music is. Without wishing to appear culturally insensitive to those in Senegal and the Gambia where the music is most popular, the best way that I can explain it is to say that it is the sound you might imagine emanating from a place of worship which has merged with a nightclub. The sound is most certainly fun, upbeat and meant for dancing, however, it has a deeply spiritual and almost holy undertone to it. This is not like N’Dour’s later work, most notably his album Egypt, which is much more explicitly religious; as his message there is focused more on the peace and tolerance of Islam, as well as the fact that Islam is not only relevant in the Arab world, but also that it also has a rich culture elsewhere, such as among the Wolof people, of which he is culturally a part.
That said, whilst he is not singing specifically about his religion in Immigrés, he is of course honouring the Muslims who belong to his Mouride brotherhood (a sect of Sufi Islam), by singing in the Wollof language and unashamedly creating a style that is not intentionally trying to appeal to a mainstream Western audience. Despite this, the mbalax music on display in Immigrés has a universality to it and it is largely down to N’Dour’s ability to use sound to create emotion with his unique voice that makes it just as powerful and hypnotic to listeners regardless of their nationality or religion. This is a seemingly unintentional move by N’Dour, whose lyrics deal with life in Senegal and is often targeted to African immigrants in Europe, rather than the likes of ourselves or of Genesis’ ex –lead singer, Peter Gabriel, who came across his work and helped him to make his name away from Dakar.
According to a translation of the title track that I found online, these are the opening lyrics of the album:
Our compatriots who are abroad don't live there -
They only reside for a short time
For they belong here (in Senegal)
And sooner or later they will come home
Because their roots are here
Because the people of those host countries
Don't really know them
Don't really understand them
For it is a question of culture
It is clear that N’Dour is not discouraging Senegalese people from making explorations or extended sojourns in cities such as Paris, London and New York in hope for a better life, but is rather reminding them not to totally abandon their roots as Senegal has an almost magnetic quality which will always suck them back in. Furthermore, it is interesting how an album that I did not previously understand the lyrics of when listening to it, still spoke to me about the beauty and importance of N’Dour’s culture. He gets across this point, not only in his direct lyrics but also in immense the popularisation of the genre. This album’s influence on Senegalese music was arguably the reason for the temporary demise of Afro-Cuban music that had been popularised by the incredible Orchestra Baobab (soon to be reviewed on the site). The band disbanded in 1987 due to the phenomenon of N’Dour’s mbalax music which, whilst contemporary in its dance style, was uniquely Senegalese with some of its very traditional undertones.
The power of the talking drummers N'Dour uses is incredibly special as the percussion on the album acts as a means of communication amongst the musicians and even sometimes with its audiences. Many African languages can be based on high and low sounds and a drum can represent these sounds through its pitch, sending messages across short distances. Perhaps this distinctive method of performing is what adds most to the music’s hypnotic quality. The first time I heard this album, I felt like I was in a trance. I was in sheer awe of the musical ability but also how the songs were able to translate such meaning simply in their tone. N’Dour’s voice is somewhat weird, but the freeing nature of it in which he is able to reach a wide range of pitches almost feels like he is releasing a burden not just from his chest but any that exist from mine too. My favourite track on the album, Pitche Mi, is by far my favourite for this reason. It is nearly 10 minutes of soul-cleansing splendour in audio form.
If I have to have criticise this album, the only thing I could say is that it left me desperately wanting more. The music in some ways took me to another realm and I wanted to stay there just a bit longer. Hardly a criticism is it? The reality is, whilst this album may be intended for the dance floor in Senegal, which I can totally understand, it is so much more than any typical dance album. N’Dour’s exquisite music permeated me on a deeper level which is an incredible achievement. Moreover, it sends out a message of solidarity to his displaced Wollof brethren reminding them both through his lyrics, his music, and his tone that home is precious and special. As someone who spends much time curious about life far away from home, perhaps this is a crucial lesson for us all to learn, that our home, for all its feelings it may present of being unfulfilled, trapped, or deprived, at its core has immense beauty which we will always return to.