JEFFREY BROWN: Youssou N'Dour, the great singer and songwriter from Senagal, comes from the ancient tradition of the griot, the West African story-teller. But his songs speak of modern life, sometimes the pain of displaced and hungry people, sometimes the joy of love and family. The music, too, is a mix of the very traditional and completely contemporary.
It's an electrified, danceable fusion of Senegalese, rock, and Caribbean beats called Mbalax, the word for rhythm in N'Dour's native language, called Wolof. It's made 44-year-old Youssou N'Dour perhaps Africa's most famous living musician and an international star who promotes African culture at home and in the West. During a U.S. tour this summer, N'Dour's fans waited to hear him at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and he spoke to us before taking the stage.
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: I'm a griot. A griot is a storyteller, the memory. And when we have fiesta, we can tell people where they're coming from, talk about different part of the country, the tradition, the cultures. What I really do is talk about the society, the things I know, I touch every day.
JEFFREY BROWN: So why is it important to talk about social issues? Because in your songs I notice you have lyrics about respecting women; you talk about helping the homeless, helping the poor.
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Music is, you know, something really powerful, and, you know, we can use it. Sometimes, what I feel is politicians say something and people doesn't get it. And music is really something coming from the sincerity.
JEFFREY BROWN: So if you have that power as a musician, what message are you trying to communicate?
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: In Africa, we have a lot of language, a lot of religion, a lot of cultures. And what we try to say is, you know, the difference of language or culture or, you know, religion is not a problem. It is riches.
JEFFREY BROWN: N'Dour grew up and first performed as a teenager in Dakar, Senagal's capital. His country's 11 million people are a mix of about a dozen ethnic groups and five languages, with a French colonial past and an economically underdeveloped present. Yet Senagal is also a functioning democracy. In 2000, the longtime ruling party was voted out of power and an opposition leader took office. And the country has a vibrant and thriving culture.
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: What we have, really, and need to be valued, is our culture. It is something really powerful.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you feel that Africa is misunderstood in the United States and the West?
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Yeah, I think one image, one face of Africa is misunderstood. You know, they show definitely lot of difficulties happen in Africa: War, AIDS, poverty. What I say is not the only image of Africa. We have different things, positive things, happiness-- and our culture is rich. When we playing music, when people talk, when people, you know... the family is very important. And I think our message is try to bring this message misunderstood here and maybe make the balance.
JEFFREY BROWN: At a rehearsal before the concert, the mix of old and new sounds in N'Dour's music was on display: Electric keyboards and guitars set off against African percussion instruments. The tama, also called the "talking drum," shows how a traditional instrument is put to use in a modern popular band. Today, the tama is used to play and announce new dance beats to the audience listening to the polyrhythmic Mbalax music.
JEFFREY BROWN: What's that one called?
JEFFREY BROWN: In his new recording, called "Egypt," Youssou N'Dour focuses for the first time on his personal faith in Islam. This excerpt is from a recent concert in Morocco. (music) Senagal's population is largely Muslim, and N'Dour has clearly set out to offer the post-9/11 world a positive and more complex idea of Islam.
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: And sometimes, I feel people, when they talk about Islam, they just see Islam is arabic religion. That's true, but it's also African and Senagalese religion.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you've written that "this is an album that praises the tolerance of my religion," and I think we're at a time where a lot of people watch the daily news and they wonder about the tolerance of Islam.
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Every religion, everything have what we call extremists, but I consider they are the minority. And the majority of Islam, what we learn definitely from our guide is tolerance, is peace. Let me say one word. When we finish pray we say, "Assalam Alaikum." "Assalam Alaikum" means "peace for all"-- not for the Islamic people, but for all.
JEFFREY BROWN: So do you feel that you have to be a kind of messenger for... to get that out to people?
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Even some people understood and get the message, I'm happy man.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now Senagal's most famous son, N'Dour still lives in Dakar. He has his own record label to promote other West African musicians. (Cheers and applause)
YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Thank you. Thank you so much.