Album Review: Youssou N’Dour Pay Tribute To Architects of His “History” on New Project

Senegalese giant of contemporary African music, Youssou N’Dour has enjoyed a famed career spanning over forty studio albums and countless honours, all of which are bookmarks on a steady and mesmerizing refinement of his fusion sound, where the intrinsic melodies and textures present in the xylophones and talking drums of the Serer people meet the dessert blues guitars and synthesizers to form Mbalax. From his days with Étoile de Dakar in the 1970s, Youssou N’Dour has embedded his strikingly rousing voice into our conscience. On his latest project we’re privy to the memories, encounters, journeys and experiments that birthed this legacy.

Released in April 2019 via Naive Records, History is Youssou N’Dour’s retrospective, where he throws the radiant light of age over his stellar career, highlighting various landmark moments and people that have contributed in shaping his uniquely textured contemporary sound which continues to reverberate all over the continent and beyond. The 10-track album which unfolds over 39 magical minutes is a refreshing revision of Mbalax, the deeply rhythmic fusion sound, an alchemy of various traditional Wolof melodies with jazzy horns and synths.

Youssou N’Dour – History album cover

The album opens with a heartfelt tribute to Habib Faye, musical director of N’Dour’s band Super Étoile de Dakar who passed in 2018. The songs indeed reflects the working relationship of over 20 years that the pair had, with a somber mood that is accented by silky gallant saxophone lines by Cameroonian Alain Rodrigue Oyono that contrasts Youssou N’Dour’s deeply emotive voice. In typical Mbalax style, the song is refreshingly rhythmic with various syrupy sections that have typified the genre over the years.

History also establishes new relationships with the second track Birima with features the dynamic vocals of Swedish Gambian singer Seinabo Sey. This new arrangement or remix breathes new life into what is undoubtedly one of Youssou N’Dour’s greatest song ever from his 2000 album, Joko. The epic ballad about a Senegalese king emphasizes the magnificent vocal dexterity of Youssou N’Dour as the songs takes on an epic and grand atmosphere. However this version becomes a conduit for Seinabo Sey to muse on her ancestry, leading with lyrics addressing her Senegambian roots.

Youssou N’Dour by Youri Lenquette

The African music universe can be made to appear smaller and less dense than it actually is especially as the marketing of music exclusively on the internet grows. Distinct forms are condensed into various predetermined packages. However, just as Salif Keita demonstrated this year , History reminds us of the diversity of the sound, across cultures and times. This record indeed reflects the product of years of subtle refinement in experiments with various melodic textures, rhythmic structures and arrangements and how there is still space in the old to grow and transform. The listening experiment is far from a splash of nostalgia but rather a vivid exposition of genius. Youssou N’Dour injects the honeyed presence of his sound on each song, be it old or new, making the album a uniquely blissful experience.

As the African contemporary sound continues to grow and change, it is also important to be reminded of the brilliance that brought us to where we are, and celebrate that excellence. Albums like History are bespoke for this purposes, filling you will the satisfaction of nostalgia yet guiding you into the future.


Written by Hakeem Adam

Image credit: Youri Lenquette


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