Charlestonians are almost “7 seconds” away from seeing legendary singer Youssou NDOUR at the Spoleto Festival USA on Sunday evening.
One of Africa’s most celebrated musicians, known for his hit songs “7 Seconds” with Neneh Cherry and “In Your Eyes” with Peter Gabriel, will open the Wells Fargo Jazz Series in Spoleto on May 29 at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard.
NDOUR is an interesting choice of program, because the public does not know it for jazz. He is known for his mainly African, Wolof and Senegalese songs, as well as the Mbalax genre – the national popular dance music in Senegal.
Wells Fargo Jazz Advisor of the Spoleto Festival USA and the wall street journal Jazz critic Larry Blumenfeld, who will host a talk with NDOUR ahead of the performance, explained that while the festival likes to honor the heritage of jazz music, it also includes music that may have a jazz connection.
“The jazz series at this festival is always broad-minded and creative,” Blumenfeld said. “We like to think more broadly and wear the word jazz like a loose garment, to embrace all music, especially great black music that connects to what we mean by jazz.”
NDOUR as program opener also support massive line and theme for this year. The Opera Omar will tell the story of Sufi, a Senegalese who was kidnapped and transported to Charleston as a slave. The performance of NDOUR, also from Senegal and a Sufi Muslim, reflects a conscious decision made by Blumenfeld and the festival.
“[Omar is] an important, somewhat groundbreaking opera, and tells this story, which is part of Charleston’s heritage and Charleston’s history,” Blumenfeld said. “It’s a very interesting extension that we have one of the greatest voices in the world and a great artist, who is a Sufi Muslim from Senegal, interpreting and sharing another side of this identity and this reality. It’s So an interesting connection. That’s why he’s here, because it’s timely.
Blumenfeld added that the jazz series will continue the thread started by Omar and will celebrate African history and its important music.
“It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful,” NDOUR said. “I think the programming sometimes determines the success of the festival and its originality.”
Joining NDOUR at the Wells Fargo Jazz Series will be Nduduzo Makhati (also African), Ravi Coltrane, Tyshawn Sorey, Linda May Han Oh & Fabian Almazan, and Cecile McLorin Salvant.
A look back at a long musical career
NDOUR won’t be in town for the full series, however, as he’s been in the States since earlier this month, performing at Carnegie Hall in New York City on May 13. Right after playing Spoleto, he’ll play another show in the US – in North Bethesda, Maryland – then head to Europe for a brief tour that includes London and Paris.
“At the beginning, it was not in my objectives to have an international career,” he said in an interview. “But I discovered that Westerners were fascinated by African, Western and world music. And with that understanding, I thought, yes, it might be possible for me to do it internationally. I just need to be well directed and to have people to collaborate with.
As for international collaborators, NDOUR sang with Peter Gabriel in 1987 and he has also worked with Sting, Axelle Red, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed.
NDOUR, however, said it was not easy to succeed in the United States.
“It took time. We are passionate about what we do and you can’t predict when exactly that will happen,” he said. “But there was comfort with all the touring, the albums and all the publicity we were doing in the States.”
In the early 2000s, he won a Grammy Award, which turned his world upside down — in a good way.
“Every time I released an album, the album was nominated at the Grammy level,” he said. “I had been nominated for four years and I didn’t win. So the fifth time, when I won, it was as if I had won a cup for myself and for the people.
Other achievements include the creation of the Super Étoile group and a political career from April 2012 to September 2013 as Minister of Tourism of Senegal.
NDOUR started performing at age 12 and is now 62. In his 50-year career, what still excites him the most is the opportunity to be on stage.
“You know, I vibrate the most when I’m on stage, wherever I am,” he said. “It’s when I feel the most free, so I will be. I’m going to live. I’m going to thrive on the sound, in this awesome atmosphere.
- Youssou NDOUR: Mbalax Unplugged performs at 9 p.m. on May 29 at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard. Tickets start at $40.50. To order tickets or for more information, visit spoletousa.org/events/youssou-ndour.
Gabriel Veiga is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program at Syracuse University.
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