As the MC announces that we are to meet “the king of African pop” before Youssou N’Dour comes on stage, this still seems to underplay the history and importance of the most celebrated and influential living musician on the continent. The Senegalese singer and songwriter transformed the west African music scene by mixing ancient influences with the very modern and then took his music to the world. Now 63, N’Dour remains a thrilling performer.
A lithe, athletic figure with cropped hair, glasses and sporting a stylish black-and-white suit, he warms up with ballad Xale Rewmi, gathers pace with praise song Serin Fallu and then eases into one of his great melodic anthems, Li Ma Weesu. By now he is joined by his full 10-piece band, with four percussionists including virtuoso talking drum player Assane Thiam and two backing singers. N’Dour is blessed with one of the most distinctive, powerful tenor voices in Africa, and tonight he is on magnificent form, reworking and transforming dance songs and emotional ballads with urgent spontaneity and sudden bursts of improvisation as he sways and dances across the stage.
It’s a style that he developed back in the early 80s, when he transformed traditional Senegalese mbalax with influences that included Cuban rumba and soul. His exhilarating dance music swept the country, and he introduced international audiences to African music when he played alongside Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman and Sting on the 1988 Human Rights Now! world tour. Six years later he released his bestselling album The Guide (Wommat), which included his hit duet with Neneh Cherry, 7 Seconds. Tonight, Cherry’s part is taken by Pascale “Kali” Kameni Kamga from Cameroon, and the song is given a gutsy, urgent makeover as they repeat “we don’t want the children suffering no more”.
N’Dour is a major player in Senegal. He has a media empire, including a newspaper and radio and television stations, has stood for president and served as minister of tourism. The night before this show he was due to be honoured at the Songlines music awards, but had to cancel as he was summoned to a meeting with the Senegalese president – coming from a griot family he has updated the traditional griot role of keeping history alive and providing advice to rulers. His music isn’t just popular, but comes with a message. One of his best-loved songs, the singalong Birima, praises a 19th-century king, and the set ends with the thoughtful New Africa, expressing hope for unity on the continent.
N’Dour returns for an encore that lasts for 45 minutes. He moves into party mode, feeding off the energy of the crowd – many of them from the diaspora – in the packed hall as he reworks the cheerful Happy and adds furious scat passages to I Love You. He ends with the angry No More, a song of political disappointment (“you promised to make good … so far nothing”) that he first released in 1992 but hasn’t lost a drop of its potency.