In Marley’s Footsteps: Youssou Ndour Discovers the African Heart of Reggae on Dakar-Kingston
Youssou Ndour’s journey to Kingston began with the music pulsing from the Dakar market stalls of his childhood. It began during long hours of listening to reggae LPs from his uncle’s record store. It continued decades later, long after Ndour became one of the world’s best known and best loved African singers, as circumstances conspired and he found himself at Tuff Gong studios, walking in Bob Marley’s footsteps and jamming with Marley’s musical friends.
Dakar-Kingston (Emarcy Records; June 7, 2011) maps this road, turning Ndour classics and several new originals into reggae anthems, reflecting reggae’s deep impact on West African music and culture. Guided by veteran reggae producer and former Marley collaborator Tyrone Downie, Ndour finds the sunny and urgent, the laid-back and the hard-grooving sides of Jamaican music, supported by a multigenerational crew of Jamaican and African reggae voices.
Ndour, a pioneering performer whose strikingly expressive voice transformed both the mbalax music of his native Senegal and Western pop, is an experienced traveler. He has effortlessly climbed charts in North America and Europe thanks to duets with Peter Gabriel, Neneh Cherry, and Sting. He has traced the roots of his griot (traditional oral historian) heritage, and explored his Muslim faith and its sonic impact by collaborating with Egyptian musicians, winning a Grammy® for his efforts.
“Reggae gives you more space than mbalax. You have more room to breathe,” Ndour reflects. “You know the rhythm and the emotion, exactly what the song is saying to you. It’s very direct at its heart.”
For Ndour, this freedom and directness translates into a stronger medium for the messages that he, too, has dedicated his career to spreading. His voice has launched Senegalese social movements (“Set” became a rallying cry for urban youth activists in 1994). His songs have whipped up international support in the fight against malaria (2009’s “Fight Malaria”) and for women’s rights (1989’s “Shaking the Tree” with Peter Gabriel), to name just a few of the issues Ndour has addressed. His work as a UNICEF ambassador—and as a global pop star dubbed “the world’s most famous singer” by Rolling Stone—has taken him across the planet.
On his travels, the importance of those who had gone before hit home, musicians like Bob Marley who hailed from long-denigrated places and yet managed to parlay powerful music into global stardom and a new social consciousness. “When I started traveling, I started seeing how Bob Marley had affected the world. I saw how someone from an underdeveloped country can become a star, someone who’s really loved,” Ndour explains. “He was my example. I knew looking at Bob Marley that I could do my music from Senegal and touch the world.”
In reggae, Ndour also heard the powerful transits that music from Africa made, as slavery ripped people and sounds from their homelands: “When people were taken from Africa, the music left, too.” Reggae’s African heart had long intrigued Ndour, whether listening to Marley songs in the market or at home on his uncle’s records. He fantasized about taking his catchy yet moving songs and letting them unfold in a new reggae context.
“For years, people told me that my voice would be perfect for a reggae album,” Ndour chuckles. “Then one day, I really felt how my songs could get a second chance through reggae. It made sense to me.”
After performing a tribute to Bob Marley at a festival in Senegal, Ndour knew it was time: He was going to finally make the reggae album.
He called Tyrone Downie, an experienced producer and former Wailer who had played with everyone from Peter Tosh to Burning Spear. Downie, who more recently has worked with African reggae icons Alpha Blondy and Ivorian Tiken Jah Fakoly, leaped at the chance to collaborate with Ndour and flew to Dakar, where he and Ndour began working on the songs that became Dakar-Kingston.
After revisiting songs like “Joker” and arranging new reggae-inflected works like “Black Woman,” Downie and Ndour went to Kingston and recorded at Tuff Gong, a crucial studio in reggae history. There, Ndour found himself embraced by a reggae community that included old hands (The Wailer’s Earl China Smith on guitar) and rising stars (Morgan Heritage, Patrice).
Their combined confidence and urgency vibrates on songs like the new and vibrant “Don’t Walk Away” and on “Marley,” Ndour’s homage to reggae’s global hero. This multi-generational reggae community extends across the Atlantic, as Nigerian soul singer Ayọ demonstrates, joining Ndour on a Peter Tosh-inspired version of “Africa, Dream Again.”
“When we were in Jamaica, Mutabaruka came to the studio,” Ndour recounts, referring to the dub poet and reggae icon. “I was a big fan. He listened to my words on ‘Marley’ and said, ‘Give me the mic. I’m going to talk about Marley.’ He knew him, and he knew just what to say.”
For Ndour, this kind of intense collaboration was one of the most satisfying aspects of the project. “They know me and my music. They wanted to support me and be with me on this project,” notes Ndour. “I was really touched by their reaction. For me, this album makes me understand how Bob Marley did so much good work. He was working with the musicians like a family.”
Guest post via WMNW