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08 février 2009

Youssou N’Dour inspired musicians to retrace the steps of the slaves. He tells our correspondent why

by Ed Potton, From The Times, February 5, 2009

Youssou N’Dour was once described by Rolling Stone as “perhaps the most famous singer alive” for his popularity across Africa and beyond. In 2007, Time named the Senegalese man with the undulating voice among the world’s 100 most influential people. When I meet him in Paris, his sometime home, Franco-African crowds follow him wherever he goes. Men in the street shout “Yous!” Women in brightly coloured dresses queue for his autograph. Babies are held up to be kissed.

On this side of the Channel his star burns less brightly. Although he popularised the pulsating mbalax sound — which melds the musical storytelling of his country’s griot caste with Afro-Caribbean influences — he is still best known here for his crossover collaborations with Peter Gabriel (Shaking the Tree) and Neneh Cherry (Seven Seconds). When he performed at Live 8 , the only African artist to be invited, he was paired on stage, not with an Annie Lennox or a Bono, but with Dido. And the last time he visited the UK, they wouldn’t even let him in.

Our interview was meant to happen last spring, as N’Dour visited London to publicise his new documentary, Return to Gorée. But on the appointed morning, his PR people called to cancel, because their client was sitting in a UK immigration cell.

I finally track him down a few months later in the Parisian suburb of Noisy le Grand. Cymbals fill the summer air: N’Dour’s band are sound-checking for an open-air performance in the town square. “It was difficult,” he says of the ordeal. Still lithe at 49, he speaks pungently accented English, occasionally erupting into his native French. “The police asked why I was going to London. I said I was going to see some journalists. They were asking for a work permit. In the end I said: ‘I’m so tired — let’s go home’.”

In another sign of N’Dour’s shamefully low standing in this country, the cinema release of Return to Gorée was shelved; it arrives here only on DVD. Which is a shame because it tells a potent story that will have added bite for N’Dour after his incarceration. Gorée is an island off the Senegalese coast where African slaves were held before the westward voyage to the Americas. Now a museum, it’s a sad place, and a natural home for N’Dour’s exquisitely mournful voice, which a critic once said had “the history of Africa locked inside it”.

N’Dour’s plan was to celebrate the links between the black music of Africa and America by assembling a team of international musicians to perform a concert on the island. The film follows him to Atlanta, New Orleans and New York, where he recruits jazz, soul and gospel artists to make the trip. He had a particular affinity with the jazz men. “Maybe when the slaves left, they left with jazz and that’s why I’m so comfortable with the arrangements.”

It won’t be spoiling things to say that he pulls it off, and triumphantly so, performing in the courtyard of the building that once held his ancestors, as local children look on rapt. But it’s the Atlanta gospel singers, once they have been gently persuaded to replace their Jesus references with more universal sentiments, who provide the most unifying scene. Their close harmonies leave the museum’s wizened old curator visibly touched. For N’Dour — like the curator, a devout Muslim — it was “a very special moment. The music helped us to talk about the slaves’ difficulties”, while the movie “helped me forget a little bit”. But can he forgive? “Yes. If people are ready to talk about it then we can move forward.”

It’s not N’Dour’s first film about slavery. In 2007 he made his acting debut in the William Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace as Olaudah Equiano, an African slave-turned-businessman who joins Wilberforce’s cause. Some saw him as a token black face in a sea of white ones, but he shrugs: “I played my role and didn’t think whether Africans were involved or not. My character did something amazing: he left behind his bad conditions, he joined a movement. It was important for me.”

He is more scathing about Live8, another Africa-orientated happening at which he was virtually the sole representative from his continent: “Next time, Live8 have to invite more people from Africa. I understand that to make people watch TV you need superstars, but the superstars can share the stage. You can’t do something for Africa and not invite Africans.”

He and his wife Aida still spend much of their time in Senegal’s capital. Dakar, where he was born, one of ten children. His father wanted him to go to school, but his maternal grandmother’s griot tradition took hold and music became his life. Now his domestic empire — studio, label, newspaper, club — employs more than 300 and he is a Unicef ambassador.

But this charismatic, diplomatic soul, so often co-opted as a figurehead for his country and his continent, refuses to take the next step. “Politics? I don’t think so,” he smiles, turning towards his band. “What I’m doing today is more than politics.”

Return to Gorée is out on DVD

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