Youssou N'dour

Finally I got to see Youssou N’dour in concert in Senegal, in fact I managed to see him twice in one evening. I’m not actually a great fan, never keen on high male voices, but he is hugely popular with the Senegalese, and I’d read so many times how much better he is in concert than on record, especially when playing to his home fans, so this was high on my list of things to do in Senegal.

He has his own club, Thiossane, not far from where I live, where he plays when he is in town. But he never seems to be in town, so when I heard on Sunday that he was playing a special acoustic set at ‘Just 4 U’ that evening, I knew I had to go, despite the outrageously high ($42) ticket price and the knowledge that I wouldn’t be getting to bed until the early hours of Monday morning.

Strangely, however, as I walked to the club several hours early to claim my reserved place, I could hear Youssou N’dour singing, and sure enough as I walked past a sports ground complex, I could see inside a stage with musicians on. As the concert was already well in progress entry was now free (in other words those manning the gate had now gone inside to watch the concert…) so I went in. This was Youssou in his element, I suppose, playing to an audience of urban youth (back-to-front baseball caps, baggy low-rise trousers, etc) who were singing along and dancing to the galloping mbalax beat in that uniquely Senegalese way – all bendy legs and thrusting groins – hilarious to watch and nearly impossible to copy.

I enjoyed it, but wasn’t yet converted. For that surely I needed the intimacy of the forthcoming acoustic performance at Just 4 U, from my allocated table less than 5 metres from the stage, although given the ticket price there was a risk that the very select audience would be made up just of those who could pay rather than his true fans.

I’m still not converted. He came on stage looking like a middle-aged bank manager, with his short hair, glasses and ordinary clothes, and for me the performance did nothing to inspire. Thankfully it was enlivened by a previously unannounced ‘special guest’ – Baaba Maal, a man with oodles of charisma who for me made the evening worthwhile. Although not from a griot (praise-singer) family, Baaba appeared to be singing the praises of Youssou N’dour in the traditional griot style, which went down very well with the audience. Mansour Seck also had a guest slot.

The other high point though was watching the hangers-on – a coterie of self-important men in big shiny bou-bous, high-fiving eachother and beaming at the audience with puffed-up pride when Youssou raised his hand to acknowledge them at one point. In fact the whole event seemed to degenerate into a kind of self-congratulatory love-in as various people got up on stage to jam with the band and sing Youssou’s praises whilst others ostentatiously pressed money into his hand. Unfortunately I think some parallels can probably be drawn between the behaviour of the audience at this event and the behaviour of the ruling elites in Africa generally…

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