Out of Africa

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In West Africa, to be a popular musician means one of two things. You can either be popular within your country of birth or you can fuse the ethnic rhythms of your people with international flavors to create a reputation for yourself as a “musical ambassador” abroad. The region’s most commercially successful musicians pursue both routes.

There are two perspectives on West African singer Viviane N’Dour. The first is that Viviane’s career has been continually overshadowed by that of her brother-in-law, the singer Youssou N’Dour; the second implies that were it not for their shared last name, Viviane would be unknown. Both are correct, to an extent.

Youssou N'Dour has achieved international renown by releasing albums abroad featuring Senegalese instruments while simultaneously producing records within Senegal in the mbalax (pronounced Mm-Ball-AKH) style, an uptempo dance genre combining synthesizers with tama and sabar drums, that Youssou is credited with modernizing over twenty years ago. Viviane has had a markedly different approach to the concept of world music. Employing a mixture of mbalax rhythms and Western pop stylings, she has created a unique brand of West African musical expression that owes much to her brother-in-law's example even as it revels in American influence, from hook-heavy melodies to invocations of hip hop.

Viviane’s first several records consisted largely of straightforward mbalax, though one featured a notable re-imagining of the doo-wop classic “Shamalama Ding Dong”. She hit her stride with 2004’s Esprit, credited to “Viviane and the Brothers,” which collected her collaborations with different Dakar-based MCs. One of these, “Taximan”, was phenomenally popular in Senegal, the Gambia, and among African ex-pats from Paris to New York. Here's a video of another popular song from that album, in which Viviane tools around Dakar in a Hummer Jeep:

I’ve seen Viviane perform live, the first time in Senegal in 2005, where she took the stage at her brother’s club and leaned pendulously over the throbbing crowd to croon her popular songs, a wind-machine blowing her hair to one side. The second time was at a Youssou N’Dour concert in New York, where Viviane was reduced to singing backup vocals. Her ex-husband/manager has been attempting to market Viviane to international audiences on her own, but much of her career has centered on performing Senegalese music for Senegalese.

Mbalax has been described as a musical style that foreigners either hate or love. Readers can make up their own minds: below are two tracks. The first is a collaboration from the album Man Diarra (2005) between Viviane and an unknown MC featuring a sample that most listeners will recognize. The second is a mbalax hit from 2007 by Thione Seck, a master of the form. Mbalax songs build slowly, so the faster, percussion-heavy dance section occurs in the second half of the piece. Both songs are sung mostly in Wolof, a language spoken by the urban majority in Senegal.

Viviane N'Dour, “Give Love A Try”

Thione Seck, “NDioul Sikklm”

Many Senegalese musicians, some of whom perform mbalax, have been distributed internationally- their recent CDs can be found at any major store. The releases of those whose popularity is limited to the African continent are only available within émigré communities. Several record stores on the north side of 116th Street around 7th Avenue in Manhattan, an area known as Little Senegal, stock most of Viviane’s catalog and related music from Africa and the Caribbean. While you’re in the neighborhood, stroll over to the French-Senegalese café, Les Ambassades, on 118th Street and 8th Avenue for a fresh croissant. Viviane has been known to stop by for one herself when she’s in town.

Questions and comments are welcome at ‘pcartelli’ at ‘gmail.com’