Youssou N'Dour proclaims his roots

The African hero is back with an infectious album that revels in the musical exchanges between Africa, Cuba and the blues. In London for a gig next month, he talks to Nick Duerden

For a man described as Africa's most famous living singer, and one whom Time magazine puts among the world's 100 most influential people, Youssou N'Dour cuts a disarmingly relaxed figure. Hiccuping after drinking some fizzy mineral water, he giggles.

"Forgive me," he says. "Pleased to meet you. These [hiccups] will go soon, I'm sure."

Here in London to promote his latest album, Rokku Mi Rokka ("Give and Take"), the Senegalese musician is in expansive mood. His Franglais burr is easy on the ear, and his smile lights up the room.

His latest album, released last autumn, is, in many ways, typical N'Dour fare: an infectious, highly rhythmic delight, his voice permeating everything like a snake in a hurry. As ever, he sings almost exclusively in Wolof, but for those of us not fluent in the language, its emotion shines through.

"For this album I was looking towards the music that touches me most," he explains. "African music, Cuban music, blues, maybe even some Latin sounds as well. You see, much of the music from the north of Senegal has its roots in all of these styles, and that's because when the slaves left Africa and went out into the world, they took with them their music. It has travelled far and wide since, and now it comes back to us with all sorts of different influences and colours. And it is this that I have tried to represent in my album, and why I have called it 'Give and Take'."

At least three of its minutes are geared towards capitalising on his global profile. "Wake Up (It's Africa Calling)" is the only song in English, and it reunites him with Neneh Cherry, with whom he scored an international hit 14 years ago in "7 Seconds". "Ever since that song, in 1994, I have been thinking about making an African response to it," he says. "That was me jumping to Neneh's style, to pop music. I wanted her to come over to my style now, and back to my roots."

Though it is perhaps the least convincing song on the record, its intentions are clear: the singer justifiably enjoys his international celebrity, and wants keenly to maintain it.

"For sure, for sure," he agrees. "Talent is never enough, and I work really hard to maintain my profile. For me, it is important, and for a great many reasons, oui?"

Born in Dakar in 1959, N'Dour began performing at the age of 12, much to his father's chagrin, who had wanted his son to pursue a more academic career – as a lawyer, perhaps, or a doctor, or a journalist, even, but certainly not a singer. "He was worried for me," N'Dour says. "You know, for reasons of drogue [drugs], bad living, things like this. But I was determined. We argued."

By the age of 20, N'Dour had turned professional, and quickly found success with his first band, Etoile de Dakar, right across Africa. "I never expected my music to travel," he says, "even when we became [locally] popular. But I remember travelling to Mali and hearing 2,000 people singing back my songs to me and crying. It was really just, ah, fantastique. I couldn't believe it, even though Mali is just next door to my country. To have an audience beyond home was not something I could even dream of."

Nevertheless, by 1987 his reputation had reached the ears of Peter Gabriel, with whom he collaborated on the latter's career defining So album. "Peter was wonderful to me, he played a really big part in my success," N'Dour says. Gabriel asked N'Dour to support him on a world tour, and "each night for 100 nights, Peter would introduce me, tell the crowd he was bringing out somebody very special."

The exposure landed N'Dour a major recording contract, and he went on to have success across the Western world as both a solo artist and as a collaborator, not just with Cherry, but also Bruce Springsteen, Wyclef Jean and Tracy Chapman. By the mid-1990s, he was Senegal's most famous man, and one of its richest, something he would be sure never to take for granted.

"With me, you see," he begins, "I feel like a missionnaire, almost. My music is not really my music, but something given to me by my country. So when I get success, I have to deliver something back."

To this end, he had set up a veritable empire in his homeland, and now employs more than 200 people to help him run a record label, a radio station, a nightclub and a newspaper. He has worked for Unicef, and also fronts his own humanitarian foundation that fights in Senegal's battle with malaria, as well as encouraging people from the provinces, particularly women, to come to the capital and enrol at the university.

All this is very philanthropic for a singer, Bonoesque. The majority of his Western counterparts would be far more likely to buy themselves a big house and spend days counting their money. N'Dour smiles broadly. "Well, I do have a big house, and I am very happy in it, but it has been my father's influence, I think, that has most encouraged me to do all of these things. When he finally accepted that I was to become singer, he told me to always carry myself with dignity and to do good for my country."

He does it well. Now 47, married and with seven children, he has done everything he ever set out to achieve, and more. In 1993, for example, he penned an African opera that premiered at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. He then wrote the anthem of the 1998 World Cup. In 2005, he was the only African artist to perform at Live 8, and two years ago appeared as the freed slave Olaudah Equiano in Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, a film about the abolitionist William Wilberforce.

"For much of my life I have worked really hard to have good career," he says. "I have had good life because of it, and I am a lucky man."

He is about to embark on a European tour, but increasingly he has wanted to take his foot off the pedal and enjoy the fruits of his many efforts a little more.

"I have a house on Cap-Vert. A small island off Africa; beautiful place. I like to go there and relax. It makes me feel, um..." He ruminates awhile here, a finger to his lips, before nodding his head, and smiling. "Ah, oui, it makes me feel peaceful."

'Rokku Mi Rokka' is out now on Nonesuch; Youssou N'Dour plays the IndigO2, London SE10 (0844 844 0002) on 1 April

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders