In terms of bringing world-renown musicians and performers to Ann Arbor, it seems as if the University Musical Society doesn’t have a ceiling. This year has already witnessed incredible performances from Caetano Veloso and Yo-Yo Ma among many others, but perhaps none of the artists from this current season have had the same musical and socio-political impact as Youssou N’Dour.
Hailing from Dakar, Senegal, N’Dour has steadily garnered iconic acclaim over the past 25 years, establishing himself as the unofficial ambassador of African roots music. It seems unfathomable to designate an entire continent around one musician, and in many ways it is, but if there’s anyone at all qualified for that title, it’s N’Dour.
His music is a smooth blend of Senegalese pop with griot percussion flairs, occasionally drifting in and out of Afro-Cuban/Caribbean territories. Mbalax, as it is known in Wolof, is more than just the eclectic music popularized by N’Dour. It reflects the rhythms and movements incorporated in the dance music. After all, you’re supposed to dance to this.
But what stands out most in the music is N’Dour’s piercing, emotive voice. Honestly, you don’t need me to tell you. Critics everywhere can’t stop raving about how charismatic and transcendental it is. Whether in Wolof or English, he’s capable of evoking global issues and cross-cultural differences in an engaging and immediate way.
Just to note some of N’Dour’s many politically conscious endeavors, he’s an ambassador to UNICEF, the United Nations and the International Bureau of Work. Even if he’s not officially entitled to African roots music’s ambassadorship, three out of four’s not bad. He has also organized concerts under certain political and social themes, such as his 1985 concert for the liberation of Nelson Mandela.
N’Dour in fact performed in Ann Arbor just two years ago in support of his acclaimed album Egypt. But this year’s performance is sure to be a completely different experience. N’Dour will be accompanied by the Super Étoile band, the ensemble he helped create and cultivate over the past 25 years.
When he formed the original Star Band in the 1970s, its rather traditional music – incorporating roots dance rhythms, religious-like chants and spacious guitar patterns – was defiantly different from West African popular music. At the time, Western soul and funk music was infiltrating most corners of the Bulge, replacing traditional instruments (and languages for that matter) with James Brown mannerisms and Hendrix-esque guitar solos. This is not to say Youssou N’Dour and the Super Étoile don’t incorporate some of these funk elements in their music. Saturday’s concert is sure to have several rising numbers.
It seems almost redundant to say this with UMS performances, but Youssou N’Dour’s concert is an incredibly special occasion that should not be missed. It’s as simple as choosing your desired reason for attending – to see an artist that has had a profound effect on African music and politics, to sit in Hill Auditorium’s luxurious and cozy seats (except for front row Mezzanine, where afterward your knees are going to be in a bit of pain) or simply to see one of the most important musicians of our time playing some seriously vibrant, engaging Afro-pop.
Tomorrow at 8 p.m.