This weekend, N'Dour rallies Atlanta's African community and world-music fans with the city's first Le Gran Ball, or Great African Ball. Not just another concert, it's a full-scale African party with food, goods, music and dance. Starting at 7 p.m., and likely lasting several hours, the soaring-voiced N'Dour and his slamming 20-piece Super Etoile Band play until they shut the Tabernacle down for the night.
Westerners are mostly familiar with N'Dour from his appearances on Peter Gabriel's popular 1985 song, "In Your Eyes," and on Paul Simon's landmark Graceland album, the same year. But those cameos weren't needed to boost N'Dour's profile at home: By the '80s, he was already known as one of the biggest stars in Africa, creator of an danceable Afro-pop style known as mbalax and a galvanizing performer like few others. What's more, he was increasingly active on the political front.
While famous musicians in the U.S. seem more inclined to become politically active with self-serving groups like the Don Henley's Recording Artist Coalition, Youssou N'Dour has engaged issues of more pressing concern to his audience. The average person in Senegal is illiterate and has a monthly income of $40. Like politically active third-world musical heroes such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, N'Dour uses his clout as a cultural icon to make some very real changes in Senegal and its neighboring West African countries. In addition to his involvement with UNICEF, International Red Cross and Amnesty International, he has joined U2's Bono in campaigning for third-world debt relief. And last year, N'Dour used his appointment as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to launch the Joko Project (Joko means "connection" in Wolof), which aims to brings computers to community centers throughout Africa.
While it's not entirely fair to compare Henley and the like to N'Dour, it does illustrate the difference between the roles of American pop stars and that of musicians from developing nations, where artists can become tremendously important social figures. On the down side, there's no $500 gold-circle seating in Africa to ensure their fortunes. In fact, artists may have to bring their own power source to a show if they plan on playing electric.
Like Marley and Kuti, N'Dour's songs -- from "Set" to "Mademba (The Electricity Is Out Again)" -- prove politics and music can go together with stunning results. On "Wiri-Wiri," the opening track of his 2000 release, Joko, N'Dour asks the listener: "If you don't know where you're heading anymore, go back to where you come from." N'Dour remembers his roots and gives something more than an album back to his community. And fortunately, when N'Dour and band come to Atlanta, they won't need a power generator.
Youssou N'Dour and the Super Etoile Band play Sun., April 14, at the Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St. 7 p.m. $35-40. 404-659-9022. www.africafest.com.
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