thu 21/10/2021

Youssou N'Dour, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Youssou N'Dour, Barbican

Youssou N'Dour, Barbican

Senegal's finest mixes lounge and spiritual funk

Old joke: when is N’Dour not N’Dour? When he’s Frank Sinatra. The comparisons of the Chairman of the Board with Senegal’s biggest star may seem a bit far-fetched, but I wondered as I watched him whether there’s a current European or American star who has the sheer authority, laid-back charisma and utterly distinctive voice that Frank used to have and Youssou has. In Youssou’s case, his voice of warm honey and mahogany is one of the seven wonders of the world. As it happens, for the first few numbers, Youssou was also as lounge-musicy as I’ve ever seen him.

This meandering into MOR was deceptive, however. It was simply a case of Youssou and the band, like a very expensive car, cruising along for a while enjoying the scenery. Even then, among the George Bensonish guitar, the cocktail-hour rhythms and the over-bright tones of antique Eighties synth machines like the Yamaha DX7 there were little flashes, like the talking-drum solos, which were like portals into other worlds.

He has a lot of musical tools at his disposal. I’ve seen him funking it up in his club in Dakar. I’ve also seen him, dressed in white, singing Sufi songs from his transcendent album Egypt with an Egyptian film orchestra. He started his career doing Cuban-style songs and his last somewhat ill-judged album was a foray into reggae. Last night, it was lounge Sufi, although the more spiritual and trancey stuff gradually revealed itself, mixed in with more fiery dance propulsion as the night progressed.

The evening started with another powerful singer, Suzanna Owiyo from Kenya, singing tough songs about poverty and rape. She’s a no-nonsense type like Oumou Sangare, with a stunning bell-like voice who plays the nyatiti – a small harp-like instrument that is only supposed to be played by men. Not that she was putting up with any of that old-fashioned stuff.

Youssou was generous with his stage; he has the total confidence in himself not to be threatened by other singers. Last night, instead of an intermission, the singer Carlou D, who used to be in the Dakar hip-hop band Positive Black Soul - and who seemed about seven feet tall from where I was sitting - fronted Youssou’s band for several numbers, notably one about Sheik Amadou Bamba, the Senegalese saint. He has an amazing multi-octave range - we are not used to hearing African falsetto, practically a yodel, somewhere between Frank Ifield and Jimmy Sommerville. He also raps, less well, in English, but has a highly appealing voice and achieved warm audience rapport.

The only really false note all evening was when the lead guitarist did a Seventies-style guitar solo and played the guitar behind his head, like an old-style “axe legend”. Youssou must have put him up to it, as he looked appropriately sheepish doing it.

On a coldish night after a long winter it took an hour or so to really move into a higher gear, before Youssou did an almost operatic solo, just to a synth backing, of his spine-tingling number "I Bring What I Love", about how people have to see Africa in a positive way, rather than the usual images of war, Aids and disaster. This was Youssou in thrilling full cry and it sounds like no one else on earth. "When I think of how my grandparents suffered, I cry", sang Youssou, raising the emotional stakes.

My fellow audience consisted of a small minority of well-dressed Senegalese (suits for the guys, spangly dresses and heels for the women) and a large majority of expectedly scruffy liberal middle-class whites, including me. There was one extraordinary thing I don’t think I’ve seen before. When Youssou was demonstrating a new dance craze sweeping Dakar (The Yousa?), displaying rather less suppleness than his voice – he is in his fifties now – he started chatting to a member of the audience who came on stage and she showed him how it was done to loud cheers. Another, also part of the scruffy white liberal majority, did likewise. Even the Senegalese female volunteers who came on stage were no match for them, spangly dresses notwithstanding. The Africans were comprehensively out-danced. This is a first in my experience at an African music gig and I suspect it may signal some key cultural moment.

Watch the video for "Allah" from the album Egypt, below

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