POP / Something new out of Africa: When World Music boomed, he boomed loudest. But then what happened? Philip Sweeney on the problem of Youssou N'Dour

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The Independent Online
The career of Youssou N'Dour continues to be a microcosm of all the problems and successes of African popular music in its interface with the mainstream multinational pop industry. What is an ambitious young recording artist with a taste of international success to do? Follow the siren call of Los Angeles session players and celebrity producers, with a risk of alienating both his home public and core Western support of purist Africaphiles? Or plough on down the authenticity route, knowing that the handful of international African hits have been achieved almost exclusively by heavy adaptation of the music towards international tastes? The Malian Salif Keita is currently in limbo (Paris, actually) with an album of French chanson versions returned to the drawing board by Island Records. Now the other perennial contender from West Africa, the Senegalese Youssou N'Dour, is back, with a new international album ready for release.

The N'Dour story so far: the bright teenage son of a mother from the traditional praise-singer griot caste takes up popular music-making in the formative years after Senegalese independence, rockets to the front-line of the veteran Star Band and leaves to set up his own Super Etoile de Dakar, Senegal's top band of the early 1980s. In 1984, the growing European interest in African music brings him to London in the right-on days of GLC-sponsored Third World concerts. Spotted by Peter Gabriel a few years later, he headlines Womad festivals, rubs shoulders with all the usual celebs - Sting, among others - at all the right events - Amnesty tours, Mandela tributes - and lands and loses a contract with Virgin Records. In 1991 Youssou signs to 40 Acres and a Mule, the record label set up by Spike Lee to 'enlarge the legacy of great African-American music', and releases the moderately successful Eyes Open. The latest album is on the parent label, Sony / Columbia.

I met Youssou last month in a suite in the extravagant new Regent Hotel, London; he was clad in what looked like a Chinese Air Force uniform redesigned by Issey Miyake. What about Spike Lee? Is he knowledgeable about African music? Who are the other artists on his label?

'Well, he would like to know about African music. He doesn't yet, he thinks it's a good idea. He agrees I need lots of support with this new album, so it should be handled by Sony . . . I don't really know who his other artists are . . .'

Is Youssou entirely happy with the progress of the international part of his career? 'There are things I might have done differently . . . for example, The Lion (Youssou's debut with Virgin Records, which flopped both internationally and, a major feat this, in Senegal) . . . but at the same time, I learned a lot making that album . . .'

Indubitably, Youssou's learning process has continued apace. The national prestige, and earnings, of his international adventures have been ploughed back into an expanding showbusiness empire in his home city, Dakar. His recording studio there, Xippi, is now well established as a rival to the only other 24-track facility, Studio 2000, and he is nurturing a stable of young talent, including his sister Abi N'Dour, although he is curiously reticent about this. 'I don't really want to talk about my sister's music, it's different . . .'

The new album, Wommat, Wolof language for 'the Guide', is Youssou's first international album produced entirely at home. The Senegalese version, eight tracks on a cassette, has been out in Dakar for several months now; the second volume of seven tracks will follow soon. Fifteen songs will be released on the international CD on 13 June. This conforms to African practice: if a European CD is released first, the African market will immediately be flooded with cheap pirate cassettes. This way it is, too, but the legitimate producer at least has a small start.

The Senegalese cassette sleeve is adorned as usual with adverts - 'Etablissements Maleye, New & Used Tyres, Fitting & Balancing'. The international CD, one assumes, will follow the familiar pattern of a Western art-directed sleeve with American PR-authored notes. 'A shimmering polyrhythmic universe of sound . . . a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it. . .' gushes the press release. It's a rare American, it seems, at least in the rock industry, whose knowledge of geography extends to a realisation that Senegal is a limited and distinct part of the continent.

The music on Wommat veers between two extremes. On the one hand, Dakar street favourites like 'Mame Bamba' - 'Great Bamba' - another tribute to the late spiritual leader Sheikh Amadou Bamba, with its flourishes of minor key horns, clicking guitars and rumbling sabar drums. On the other, cross-over tracks like '7 Seconds', a banal soul duet with Neneh Cherry, in which Youssou floats antiseptically through a haze of musical dry ice. Probably the best track is another Dakar favourite, 'Tourista', a charming admonition to Youssou's countrymen to welcome tourists - 'Hey, taxi-man, don't cheat them, Hey, vendor, don't overcharge them . . .'

No African pop star is more concerned with forging a serious contemporary artistic oeuvre, a preoccupation which led to his one-off musical at the Paris Opera last year, and a planned multimedia extravaganza he is artistically directing for next year's London Africa '95 festival. He is not at all amused about his other involuntary new international record release, the second volume of classic early 1980s Etoile de Dakar recordings marketed by the British African specialist, Sterns.

'It was badly recorded, if I'd known they wanted to release it, I would have re-recorded it . . .' Sterns, while concerned to placate Youssou - 'We don't like upsetting famous African artists' - maintain that the old material was legitimately acquired from its Senegalese producer, and, quite rightly, that it is great music increasingly in public demand. As far as the purists are concerned, Youssou's surest way to increase that demand would be to record a few more numbers with Neneh Cherry.

(Photograph omitted)