Shakin' the Tree
Youssou N'Dour has been called the "voice of Africa" -- the continent's best known living singer. Born in Senegal in 1959 on the eve of the country's independence from France, N'Dour comes from a long line of griot storytellers and musicians. In the 1970s and '80s, he helped create the popular mbalax style of Cuban-influenced West African music with his band Super Etoile de Dakar. His distinctive tenor voice is instantly recognizable in Western pop songs like "7 Seconds" with Neneh Cherry and his cover of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy."
He's also a human rights activist, who helped lead the international movement to free Nelson Mandela and became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and UNICEF. Already a star in Senegal, N'Dour became an international sensation when he joined an Amnesty International concert tour in 1988 with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Sting. His 1989 song with Gabriel, "Shakin' the Tree," championed the rights of African women and confirmed his reputation as a man willing to challenge the established order.
That reputation was put to the test in 2012 when N'Dour challenged an entrenched incumbent for the presidency of Senegal. Abdoulaye Wade, in his eighties, had served two terms and was running for a third in defiance of the country's constitution. A growing opposition movement took to the streets, defying a ruler they accused of corruption and failure to deal with high unemployment and the rising cost of living. N'Dour, a successful media entrepreneur and his country's most famous artist, stepped forward as a "people's candidate," but the government barred him from running, claiming he had failed to submit enough valid signatures. Rioting broke out in the streets of Dakar. A police crackdown on protestors threatened Senegal's reputation as a relatively peaceful and democratic country. But N'Dour refused to back down, joining forces with a movement of young people, Y'en a Marre (meaning "We're fed up"), determined to push for change.
In the end, an opposition candidate, Macky Sall, backed by N'Dour and other reformers, was elected in a runoff, and the new president promptly appointed N'Dour as minister of culture and tourism. The country celebrated in a mass outdoor concert with Youssou N'Dour back in a familiar role: performing on stage for the people of Senegal.
Cassandra Herrman, Producer
Marco Werman, Reporter
Linda Peckham, Editor
Andy Bowley, Camera and Sound
Sadibou Marone, Senegal Coordinator
Get information on Youssou N'Dour's latest music, albums, songs, music videos, and more.
Watch Senegalese guitarist Jimi Mbaye perform the song "Birima," which he wrote for Youssou N'Dour.
Breaking It Down: Youssou N'Dour
Host Marco Werman takes listeners on a half-hour tour of the musical evolution of one of Africa's greatest singers, Youssou N'Dour.