November 16, 2007
Better Than: Being at S.O.B.’s in the Eighties
The Review: If it makes sense that Youssou N’Dour kicked-off his current North American tour in the polyglot melting pot that is Miami, it makes even more sense that he did it at the behest of Miami’s own Rhythm Foundation, the folks most responsible for ensuring that our town gets to experience the best music in the world. And if the crowd was disproportionately pale (who knew so many Europeans lived here?), they were nonetheless worldly.
Youssou N’Dour has a knack for stripping away whatever borders and boundaries have been erected between peoples and delivering something at once universal and unifying. Of course, it helps that the UN Goodwill Ambassador is a natural statesman. It also helps that his music incorporates elements as varied as Afro-Cuban, cool jazz, rock, and the indigenous sabar beat of his native Senegal.
That country's fusion sound is known as mbalax, and Friday night N'Dour and his savvy Super Etoile band gently beat it into our bones – and into our souls.
Though I caught N’Dour and company back in the Eighties at New York’s infamous venue S.O.B.’s, when Afro-pop was first crossing over, I’ve not kept close enough track of his career to give a wholly accurate account of just which songs were played and where they come from. I do know “Set” came off like the “Be” that it means. It rendered explicitly why its message was initially so inspirational, it sparked a movement among Dakar’s teens (“Set-Setaal,” literally, “be clean”) to clean up the ghettos of the capital.
I do know too the set contained a rousing rendition of “Beykat” (from 2000’s Joko), and I’m pretty sure there was more than a track or two off of his most recent Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take), including a speedy-keen version of “The Father’s Sister.”
But titles and track lists become superfluous when experiencing N’Dour and Super Etoile, ‘cause to consider what’s being played means you haven’t fully let go. And if this show proved to be anything at all, it was release. Throughout the night the wings and the aisles of Gusman were peppered with those overcome enough by the groove to shake forth and dance. There was a gaggle of gals doin’ the ventilateur (“electric fan”); a cadre of cats doin’ the dog (xaj bi), a little bit of moulaye chigin (break-matching pelvic and knee movements), and a little more of the jelkati (upper arms, bent at the elbows, moving from left to right). In other words: losing themselves to the music. And when N’Dour returned to encore and insisted the whole house do likewise, the whole house did. And nearly fell down with exuberance. -- John Hood
Personal Bias: I could watch thoughts form in Gusman and still be content.
Random Detail: Assane Thiam plays a mean talking drum.
By the Way: Youssou N’Dour is currently one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.