Charlestonians are almost “7 seconds away” from seeing legendary singer Youssou NDOUR at Spoleto Festival USA on Sunday evening.
One of Africa’s most famous musicians, known for hit songs “7 Seconds” with Neneh Cherry and “In Your Eyes” with Peter Gabriel, will open the Wells Fargo Jazz Series at Spoleto May 29 at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard.
NDOUR is an interesting program choice, as audiences don’t know him for jazz. He’s known for mostly African, Wolof and Senegalese songs, as well as the Mbalax genre – the national popular dance music in Senegal.
Spoleto Festival USA’s Wells Fargo Jazz advisor and Wall Street Journal jazz critic Larry Blumenfeld, who will moderate a talk with NDOUR before the performance, explained that while the festival likes to honor the legacy of jazz music, it also includes music that may have a connection to jazz.
“The jazz series at this festival is always broad-minded and creative,” said Blumenfeld. “We like to think more broadly, and wear the word jazz as a loose garment, to embrace all the music, especially the great Black music that connects to what we mean by jazz.”
NDOUR as the program opener also supports a massive through-line and theme for this year. The opera Omar will tell the story of Sufi, a Senegalese man who was abducted and transported to Charleston as a slave. The performance by NDOUR, also from Senegal and a Sufi Muslim, reflects a conscious decision made by Blumenfeld and the festival.
“[Omar is] an important opera, somewhat groundbreaking, and tells that story, which is part of Charleston’s legacy and part of Charleston’s history,” Blumenfeld said. “It is very interesting extension that we have one of the world’s great voices and great artist, who is a Sufi Muslim man from Senegal, performing and sharing another facet of that identity and reality. So that’s an interesting connection. That’s why he’s here, because it is timely.”
Blumenfeld added 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 that the programming sometimes determines the success of the festival and originality.”
Joining NDOUR at the Wells Fargo Jazz Series will be Nduduzo Makhathinini (also African), Ravi Coltrane, Tyshawn Sorey, Linda May Han Oh & Fabian Almazan, and Cecile McLorin Salvant.
Reflecting on a long music career
NDOUR won’t be in town for the full series, though, as he’s been in the U.S. since earlier this month, performing at Carnegie Hall in New York City on May 13. Right after he performs at Spoleto, he’ll perform one more show in the U.S. – in North Bethesda, Maryland — and then head to Europe for a brief tour that includes London and Paris.
“At the beginning, it was not in my goals to have a career internationally,” he said in an interview. “But I found that people in the West had a fascination with African, occidental and world music. And with that understanding, I thought that, yes, it could be possible for me to make it internationally. I just need to be well directed and have people to collaborate with.”
When it comes to international collaborators, NDOUR famously sang with Peter Gabriel in 1987 and he also worked with Sting, Axelle Red, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed.
NDOUR said it was not easy to make it in the U.S., however.
“It took time. We are passionate about what we do and you can’t anticipate when exactly it will happen,” he said. “But there came a comfort with all the tours, albums and all the advertising we were doing in the United 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 didn’t win. So the fifth time, when I won, it’s like I won a cup for me and for the people.”
Other accomplishments include starting the band Super Étoile, and a political career from April 2012 to September 2013 as Senegal’s minister of tourism.
NDOUR started performing at age 12 and he’s now 62. In his 50-year career, what still excites him most is the opportunity to be on stage.
“You know, I vibrate the most when I’m on stage, anywhere I am,” he said. “This is the time when I feel the most free, so I will be. I will live. I will thrive on the sound, in this awesome atmosphere.”
- Youssou NDOUR: Mbalax Unplugged performs 9 p.m. May 29 at 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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