Youssou N’Dour performs in Madison

From the African country of Senegal, Youssou N’Dour is perhaps the most widely known afro-pop musician performing today. He has achieved superstar status virtually everywhere outside of the United States. I have been wishing to hear him perform live since 1990 when I first read about him, and purchased his new CD at the time, Set. Last night, Youssou and his band, the Super Etoile of Dakar, finally played a show close enough for me to attend. Seventeen years of anticipation is a lot to live up to, but the charming master of mbalax (a blending of traditional Senegalese music/rhythms, afro-cuban music, and popular western music) exceeded my high expectations.

The concert (held at the Wisconsin Union Theater) was so good in its entirety, it’s difficult to choose highlight moments. But what I enjoyed most was hearing performances of some of my favorite songs: “Mame Bamba” from The Guide (Wommat), the title track from the previously mentioned “Set,” and “Birima” and “Beykat” from the album Joko: The Link.

Before Youssou and his band were introduced, the audience was told if we felt the urge to dance (and they were sure we would) we should feel comfortable doing so in the aisles and in front of the stage. For the first few songs, there was some clapping going on and some rocking in the seats, but to my disbelief, no one got up and danced. Suddenly, a courageous couple walked in front of the stage and started dancing. Soon that area (and a good portion of the lower level aisles) was jam packed with people dancing to the mbalax rhythms. When that happened the intensity of the music swelled along with the number of dancers — the band feeding off the energy the dancers gave them.

Just before one of the few low-key songs of the night, Youssou lamented over the fact that here in America, what they most often show us about Africa is AIDS, poverty, suffering, war, etc. These are not the only measures of Africa. He then sang a quiet, and very passionate version of “New Africa,” accompanied only by his keyboardist. The song (sung mostly in his native language of Wolof) ends with two hopeful English phrases:

Change your thinking,
Come together, new Africa.
Work together,
Keep on working, for Africa.

Youssou and the nine members of his band (four percussionists, two guitars, bass, keyboard, and backup singer) played a two hour set with Springsteen-like endurance that was so good, I lost all perception of time. Toward the end of the show, Youssou asked us if we wanted to hear one more song. Of course we cheered our approval. He then said “We’ve already played 28 songs, but you want to hear one more?”

My first thought (and vocal reaction) was, “Yeah, woo hoo! Play one more!” My second thought was, “Wow! They’ve played 28 songs already?”

What a great show. I hope I don’t have to wait another 17 years to see Youssou N’Dour and the Super Etoile of Dakar again.