Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’Dour, who turns 60 this fall, has been a central figure in contemporary African music for decades. Maybe it’s time someone wrote his history.
That’s just what N’Dour himself does on his new album, “History,” which revisits his own music along with that of other African and Africa-rooted musicians. The album was released May 17, near the start of a world tour that brings him to the Music Center at Strathmore on Wednesday, May 29.
“We always enjoy playing in the D.C area,” said N’Dour as he prepared to head from Europe to the U.S. “They always respond very well. The crowd is always very diverse, perhaps due to the fact that there are a few international institutions around.”
“History” includes updates of three older N’Dour songs, but opens with the new “Habib Faye,” a tribute to the bassist who died a year ago. Faye began playing with N’Dour in Super Etoile de Dakar, a band that formed in 1979. The musician served as the group’s musical director for almost 20 years.
Youssou N’Dour has won one Grammy award for best contemporary world music album. And has been nominated for six others.
Photo Credit: Youri Lenquette
The song “came to me naturally,” said N’Dour. “This is the first song I wrote following his untimely death. Habib was a very dear friend and key member of the Super Etoile and it is fitting that the album opens with his tribute.”
The singer moves beyond his own history with remakes of two songs by Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian musician who relocated to New York in the 1960s. Olatunji, who died in 2003, was one of the first African musicians to shape American music. His U.S. debut album, 1959’s “Drums of Passion,” influenced such diverse performers as John Coltrane, Carlos Santana and Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker.
“Olatunji was not just a musician,” N’Dour noted. “He was also a civil rights activist who marched along Martin Luther King and the first Nigerian artist to be signed in the U.S.A.”
“History” refreshes Olatunji’s “My Child” and “Takuta” by placing the singer-drummer’s original vocal recordings within new arrangements that also feature N’Dour’s resonant tenor.
Each of the three N’Dour songs retooled on “History” gets a different treatment. “Salimata” and “Ay Coono La,” originally released in 1989 and 1990, respectively, are rearranged and newly recorded. 2000’s “Birima” is a duet with Seinabo Sey, a Swedish-Senegambian singer who added new lyrics about her father and the struggles of immigrants.
“‘Salimata’ was a very popular song, but not known to the younger audiences, so I thought it would be nice to bring it back,” N’Dour explained. “With ‘Ay Coono La,’ I had worked on it with Congolese musician Fally Ipupa and that gave me an idea to do a modern version of it. With ‘Birima,’ the idea came from Seinabo Sey, who suggested to do a remix of it. It worked so well that I asked her to do a version for the album.”
Another significant contributor to “History” is Alain Rodrigue Oyono, whose saxophone helps give “History” a smoother sound than its 2017 predecessor, the more percussive “Seeni Valeur.”
“Alain left his native Cameroon and came to live with us in Senegal,” N’Dour said of the sax player that joined the band seven years ago. “He is very talented, and of course, I do bear him in mind when composing new songs.”
N’Dour sings primarily in Wolof, his native tongue, just one of dozens in his homeland. There’s plenty of English on “History,” and the album’s multiple languages seem to be crucial threads in a musical tapestry that also incorporates traditional and contemporary, African and Western. “Growing up in Senegal certainly does prepare you to deal with several languages,” N’Dour acknowledged.
“History” spins toward the future with N’Dour’s remix of “Hello,” a song by Swedish-Congolese singer Mohombi, and “Confession,” a collaboration with Mike Bangerz, a Franco-Beninese electronic-music maker.
Sey, Mohombi and Bangerz “are doing quite different and very modern things,” N’Dour said, “but of course, all three are of African descent and therefore their African roots would be quite noticeable in their music.”
Duets have long been a feature of N’Dour’s music. The singer first came to prominence in Europe and the U.S. when he traded vocals with Peter Gabriel (on 1986’s “In Your Eyes”) and Neneh Cherry (1994’s “Seven Seconds”). Yet such breakthrough recordings didn’t result from a conscious strategy, according to N’Dour. “None of my duets or collaborations were planned,” he recalled. “They just happened naturally as a result of very interesting encounters.”
“History is about great meetings and encounters,” N’Dour said. “I have enjoyed every single one of them. Life is all about give-and-take and exchanges.”
Youssou N’Dour and his band will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets range from $38 to $87. “Muisc is the Weapon of the People,” a preconcert event, is free with performance ticket; advance registration is recommended as seating is limited. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.