Wednesday, January 4, 2012



Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
This file photo taken on Nov. 20, 2009 shows Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour at an economics forum in Lille, France. The world-renowned singer has announced he will run for president of the West African country.
The singing career of one of Africa’s greatest talents, Senegalese bandleaderYoussou N’dour, may have drawn to a close, or at least a lengthy pause, consumed by the 52-year-old go-getter’s ambition to become president.
N’dour, arguably Africa’s most celebrated living singer, is empowered with a triumphant yet quivering tenor “so extraordinary,” Rolling Stone magazine wrote, “that the history of Africa seems locked inside it.” Producers as varied as Peter Gabriel and Wyclef Jean (a musician who mounted his own unsuccessful presidential bid in Haiti) have tried to uncork it, but the radio hits he’s recorded for home audiences has always jumped with more fervor, more vim. Still, after three decades spent tracking some of Afropop’s highest-grossing records, the aging star wants that voice heard in a different way.
On Monday, the bespectacled singer – pacing nervously in a beige boubou – announced he’d run for his West African nation’s highest office. The news echoed last month’s announcement that he’d stop performing, canceling shows at his personal palace – a hole-in-the-wall club off a sheep-strewn Senegalese back road where mere rumors of a N’dour concert would inspire block-long lines of fancily robed fans.
Senegal’s election is in two months, and even a loss could earn N’dour a senate seat. A win, however unlikely, could force an end to a dazzling streak of records that includes 2002′s “Nothing’s in Vain” – a rootsy and kora-breezed pastiche which made him the second African to win a World Music Grammy – and 2005′s “Egypt,” a mystifying collaboration with Egyptian sufi mystic string players that made him something of heretic in N’dour’s own, deeply Muslim country.
The irony? Senegalese radio – including the station he founded in 2003 – might just give a President N’dour less airtime than they already offer Youssou N’dour, whose percussive hits bump out of buses and boutiques across the capital. It’s hard to think of a singer–other than Bob Marley–who dominates his country’s pop music as firmly as N’dour does Senegal’s. In his 20s, N’dour engineered the tricky rhythms of Mbalax, still the country de-facto dance genre, a hype music that sounds the way Caribbean Soca would if it walked through the desert with a disco strut. Senegal’s DJs spent the better part of the past three years spinning “Salagne, Salagne.” N’dour’s more recent – and more political – hit, “Leep Mo Lendem,” riffed humorously over the strains of “Ob-la-di, Ob-a-da (Life Goes On),” about Senegal’s daily power cuts.
Afro-pop fans abroad will feel his absence, too. In the late 1990s, and early 2000s, as N’dour came in to his own as a producer, the gap narrowed between the slick, buoyant jams he records for Senegalese clubs and the earthy neo-traditional fusions adored by Grammy judges. “Tan Bi,” from “Nothing’s In Vain,” and “Birima,” an ambling catchy hook he has repeatedly re-recorded , remain two of the rare world music gems that are as popular in their home country as they are over dinner tables and coffee shop counters in England.
His stump speech, though, appears no less lyrical: His announcement, Monday, glinted with lines as poetic as anything he’s ever voiced over kora strings. “In the school of the world, I have studied,” he said, staring sheepishly into the camera. “I have learned so much. Travel instructs us as equally as books. This world is an open book.”