Youssou N'Dour: 'The financial crisis makes me optimistic'

Youssou N’Dour (49) is the most famous African musician in history. In 2007, Time Magazine declared him one of the hundred most influential people in the world. A new documentary -Youssou N’Dour. I bring what I love- was screened In Amsterdam. MO* seized the opportunity to interview the voice of Senegal.
The bright white trousers and vest in which Youssou N’Dour appears for the interview, emphasize how tall he really is. But more importantly, they create the impression of someone totally different than the artist who always performs in typical African clothes. But this impression does not last very long.
Everything has a meaning and Africa is of great importance for Youssou N’Dour. It is even his life assignment. ‘My commitment in life is showing the true image of Africa to the rest of the world’, he says. ‘Africa is not only drama, war, poverty and aids. Africa has a different, amazing face: solidarity, the importance of the family, happiness, sun, cultures, everything that enables the African people to survive and continue living’.
He succeeded really well in passing on that image, musically anyway. N’Dour has a big influence on the growing international popularity of the African music. ‘Internationally speaking African music was primarily represented by music of Congo and East Africa. Senegal was trailing behind. But that turned out to be an advantage for us’, says Youssou N’Dour. ‘We started by going back to the traditional music and because in Senegal we are very open to other influences, it resulted in an interesting mix that appealed to people throughout the world.’
The successes came in quick succession, locally but also internationally. In Senegal, N’Dour is called the king of mbalax, a style that mixes traditional Senegalese rhythms with jazz, rock and Caribbean music. Abroad big artists are interested in him since his concert with Peter Gabriel in the eighties. He cooperated with famous artists as Neneh Cherry and Wyclef Jean. In 1998 he wrote and sang together with Axelle Red the opening hymn for the FIFA World Cup. ‘Language is important but is not a barrier’, says Youssou N’Dour. ‘When people do not understand the language, something is missing but that does not imply that it is less interesting’.
In spite of his success, the most famous African singer in history never felt the need to leave Senegal. ‘But never say never,’ he jokes. But he knows that his choice to stay in his country in one way or another helps to explain his global popularity. ‘It was not a choice, it was a natural situation’, he states. ‘I never planned it. I love my family and friends too much to go and live abroad, and I think that my music also needs Senegal’. N’Dours commitment to Africa helped him to have a presence, even outside his music, and that put his music even more in the spotlight.
Children are the central issue in his commitment. As a Unicef ambassador Youssou N’Dour was the face of a big campaign against malaria, a fatal disease that kills especially children in Africa, in 2006. ‘I want people to take their responsibility towards children. African children have the right to health, education and culture. I do not want the African children to get uprooted. I want them to value our culture.’

Putting across another image of Africa and learning young people to appreciate the African culture, is not always easy. Youssou N’Dour realizes that very well. ‘There are so many situations that contradict you’, he says. ‘There is the war in Eastern Congo. The images that reach us from those territories make an optimistic and cheerful discourse incredible. We cannot say that everything in Africa is great. Africa is a contradictory continent. But I think those contradictions are a source of wealth. I just get the best out of it. For example, the diversity of languages is a wealth for me and that gives me hope. I do not like talking about people’s dramas. I would rather emphasize the positive things.’
And it are most of all the Africans themselves who have to focus on the positive. They have to believe in themselves and keep fighting. ‘Africa needs the Africans’, says Youssou N’Dour. ‘We cannot always wait for solutions from abroad. The Africans have to believe that the solutions are available in Africa and not only in other continents.’ This conviction led to N’Dour cooperating in a campaign against illegal migration organised by Spain in 2007. In one of the television advertisements, made for the campaign, N’Dour tried to convince young Africans not to risk their lives for nothing: ‘You are Africa’s future.’
‘Nothing is fine, the title of one of my albums, is also, in some part, my life motto’, says N’Dour. ‘This means that when you believe in something, one day it will become reality. It is some kind of deliverance. That is why I say that one should try everything to realize his dreams, however large the difficulties might be. One should not calculate or count the steps because deliverance means believing in something and working towards it. It also means sharing one’s success with other people.’
Youssou N’Dour’s choice to stay in and work for Africa, also gave him more freedom. ‘I am very attentive to things surrounding me and am very open-minded. I like tasting all the different music genres and I am not afraid to try all kinds of things. I am open for other influences and that is characteristic to Africans and Africa’, he says. But the choice for Africa not only gives freedom, it also brings responsibility.
‘When you stay in Africa, you cannot allow yourself to exaggerate. There are things concerning African culture that make you think. You stay careful because you know that there are people looking at you. You cannot exaggerate or start behaving differently. And that is the same in music. When I am in Japan, I want to do something with drums. And when I am back  in my studio in Senegal, I know I cannot breach certain boundaries. I do not have to exaggerate. I know where to stop.’
The documentary Youssou N’Dour. I bring what I love of Chai Vasarhelyi, that had its European premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam end of November, starts with the recordings of the Egypt album (2005). N’Dour sings about his love for his religion, Islam. ‘What I wanted to show with that album is that Islam is not only a religion of Arabs. It is also the religion of lots of Asians and Africans. In Senegal, 95% of the people are Muslims. I have the impression that when people are talking about Islam, they do not think of Africans as Muslims. It is my objective to make it clear to people that Islam also exists in Black Africa.’
An Afro-American living in the White House is a positive thing for Youssou N’Dour, but most of all for the United States itself. ‘Black people will notice that other people look at them differently. That is a fact. But actually it is especially good for the image of the US. Furthermore, we should not forget that Obama is first of all an American. He is not an African living in Africa to lead the world. He lives in the US to lead the world.’
But what makes Youssou N’Dour really optimistic is not the election of Barack Obama into the White House, but the global financial crisis. ‘It is the first time in a long time that there is a huge financial crisis like this. The crisis forced the big powers to consult other countries. The US and the big European countries are negotiating together with newcomers like China and Brazil. Brazil states that also other countries should be involved. Now we have something like the United Nations of Finances. And that is a very good thing. The United Nations lost their significance. It is the law of the strongest that counts and we know where the law of the strongest can lead.’

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