Youssou N'Dour Has Left the Building

By 30, he was the sound of Dakar, the most listened-to musician in Africa. Now he’s mulling a run for the presidency of Senegal.

The first time I saw Youssou N’Dour perform, he was a little flash on a cheap TV in Italy. It was the autumn of 1994. I was living in Florence, taking a documentary filmmaking course, and my subject, Abdula, a Senegalese immigrant who trafficked in trinkets on the Via Palazzuolo, had invited me back to the flat he shared with five other vendors on the city’s outskirts. We’d have dinner so I could learn something of the food and music of his native Senegal. In Abdula’s living room was a pile of bootleg cassettes and videos on thrice-taped-over VHS. We watched some Baaba Maal and Super Diamono. I could have left happy. Then Abdula put in a N’Dour video.

Agog. I think the word I want here is “agog.” One of the vendors’ wives, visiting from Dakar, had prepared curried goat with onion, and we gathered on the floor around a metal bowl, watching N’Dour. A professional singer since his teens, famous by 20, the most listened-to musician in Africa at 30, N’Dour was Dakar’s Mozart, but until that point I’d heard him only as a nameless accompanist to Western artists like Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry. I’d never been exposed to the undiluted stuff. And so I sat, palm of steaming meat suspended between bowl and face, agog, as he flew from arpeggio to arpeggio.

The mind protested: Voices don’t move like that. This wasn’t human. It was birdsong. Seurat in sound waves. I had no idea what N’Dour was singing about in his native Wolof, and it didn’t matter. In fact, it may have helped. “The same thing that made Billie Holiday great makes Youssou great,” jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, one of his many famous friends, has postulated. “The lyrics are irrelevant.”

Probably not a week has gone by since that I haven’t thought about that night of hot goat and revelation. Last fall I moved to Nairobi, drawn to Africa in part by a kind of echolocation. After arriving I decided, without burden of reason, that I was entitled to a meeting with N’Dour.

I suspected it wouldn’t be easy. Aside from being the most famous man in Senegal and, it’s said, one of the richest, N’Dour is a tireless campaigner for human rights, a former UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and, as of last year, a politician. He’s now the minister of tourism and leisure. In March I began contacting his ministry for an interview. When I arrived in Dakar in April, I called again. Eventually someone got back to me. “Minister N’Dour is out of the country.” When would he be back? “Next week.” One often hears “next week” from officials in Africa. It means “never.”

However, in Senegal, if you want to learn about Youssou N’Dour, you don’t need to meet him. His music emanates from homes, stores, buses, taxis, kiosks, restaurants, boats, brothels, earphones. Half the city seems to know him, and whether they know him or not, everyone is happy to talk about him.

N’Dour grew up in Medina, a district of sandy streets and tenements. Around the corner from a small office building that houses N’Dour’s newspaper and radio stations (he also owns a TV station) is his childhood home. His father, El Hadji Elimane N’Dour, still owns the property but avoids it. For 30 years people have been lining up outside to ask for money. So El Hadji has hired a man to sit there and nod at them while he sits in another house around the corner (which Youssou bought him). I met El Hadji there. In wrinkled green pants and a T-shirt and with very few teeth, he looked like an old cat. “My family couldn’t sing,” he confided. “Youssou learned from his mother’s family.”

N’Dour’s mother and his grandmother and her mother before her, El Hadji said, were griots, oral historians who pass on their knowledge in song. N’Dour sang with them as a child. By age 12 he was performing at kassak, the circumcision celebration, which in Sufi tradition takes place in the early teens. “Sometimes I used to sing at ten kassak a night,” he’s said. Soon he was forming bands and skipping school to rehearse. He ran away to Gambia to sing in clubs. The story goes that once N’Dour sold his shoes to cover carfare to Banjul. He arrived barefoot.

“I didn’t want him to become a singer,” his father told me. “I wanted him to become a writer, or go to university and take many degrees.” By the time El Hadji heard him sing, N’Dour was already known. “One day he came home and said his song would be on the radio.”

N’Dour still plays with the musicians he met then. I spoke with Papa Oumar Ngom, N’Dour’s guitarist of 34 years, on the patio of a chicken restaurant. How does it feel to play with N’Dour? I asked.

“Like you have a mission,” he said. “A mission to make the whole world know about Senegalese music and culture. To carry Youssou’s voice to people everywhere.”

Together they ousted the Latin jazz that had been exported from West Africa centuries before and then reimported, and that had weighed down Senegal’s rhythms. They installed in its place the Dakar street style known as mbalax. Mbalax became the city’s sound, then the national sound. In 1984 Peter Gabriel saw them play at a club in London. He came to Dakar to make sure he hadn’t been hallucinating. He put N’Dour on his album So. In the film Say Anything, when John Cusack holds the boom box over his head? That’s N’Dour you’re hearing at the end of “In Your Eyes,” plaintive and exuberant, febrile but wizardly, winning Ione Skye back. In 1988 N’Dour joined Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Sting on the Amnesty International Tour. His song “Nelson Mandela” became an antiapartheid anthem. Rolling Stone called his voice “so extraordinary, the history of Africa seems locked inside it.”

The second to last day I was in Dakar, the ministry of tourism called. I was to interview N’Dour the next day, before my flight. After barely a minute in his waiting room, I was ushered into his office. The only indication of his former life was a kora sitting in a corner. I’d only ever seen him in concert, in robes and cool jackets. Now he looked inadvertently as he did in photographs from his early club dates: fitted suit pants, tight shirt, thin tie. At 53, he is still long and narrow but with the hint of a gut and graying temples.

I told N’Dour about Florence, about how I had wanted to visit Dakar for almost 20 years, about his concerts. He didn’t appear to be listening too closely. He didn’t want to talk about his music but rather politics. “I hadn’t planned to be a minister, hadn’t planned to come into the political arena. This only came about after I felt the need to get involved,” he told me, sounding very much the politician. “And I think my being here, my role in the government, is a reassurance for the population as much as it is a reassurance for the international community.”

In 2011, when Senegal’s mildly despotic president, Abdoulaye Wade, won a court ruling permitting him to run for a third term, N’Dour helped lead the movement to oust him. Then, against the advice of friends, he tried to run for president. A court forbade it (something about improper paperwork), but Macky Sall, the reformist who won the presidency, made N’Dour minister for tourism and culture. Earlier this year he switched to minister for tourism and leisure. It’s widely assumed he’ll try to run for president again, perhaps as soon as 2019.

When it was time for me to leave, N’Dour asked what I thought of Dakar, now that I’d finally arrived. Apparently he had been listening. I told him I liked it very much. Why? Because, unlike many big African cities, I said, it still felt like the village it started as.

“Yes,” he said, getting up from his desk to walk me out, smiling faintly. “That’s one of the slogans I’m considering for our new tourism campaign.”

James Verini is a writer based in Nairobi.