Throughout Europe his records are filed under "N." Hes Africas biggest star. However, in the United States, youll still find his music in the back of the store in the small African section. Fifteen years ago, Youssou NDour broke onto the international scene opening for Peter Gabriel on the So tour, where he introduced the world to mbalax. Its a Senegalese style that NDour helped create, fusing reggae, salsa and funk with traditional West African Wolof rhythms. Ever since, he has essentially led a double life, recording mbalax hits to keep the dance floors scorching in West Africa while searching for a way to match this success stateside.
NDour threw out all the stops with Joko, bringing in Sting, Peter Gabriel and Wyclef Jean in a full-force attempt to get into the American mainstream. Lyrically, the album is half-English, half-Wolof. Musically, too, its all over the map. "This Dream" sounds like a bonus track from Peter Gabriels So album, a reminder of how two remarkably different voices can melt together magically NDours acrobatic passion blends wonderfully with Gabriels moody eeriness. The two Wyclef Jean collaborations are as clever and witty as Jeans Carnival album.
Another highlight of Joko is the Senegalese tracks, including a new version of "Birima" with a slight reggae tinge. A virtual anthem in Senegal, the catchy ballad is so infectious that youll be singing along even if you dont speak a word of Wolof.
What unites this diverse album is NDours versatility, using his dynamic vocal range, throwing in a touch of talking drums to bridge hip hop, reggae and funk with the music of where it all came from, West Africa. Will Joko ever become a mainstream American hit? Probably not. MTV will never air a video by a guy singing in English with a heavy Senegalese accent, and certainly never air a video in Wolof. Still, if youre looking for an infectious CD that defies categorization, Joko is a perfect choice.
Dan Rosenberg writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org.