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Youssou N’Dour | Dakar Kingston

Album review by John Powell

Youssou N’Dour | Dakar Kingston

Dakar Kingston is what it sounds like, Youssou N’Dour’s connecting the dots between Jamaica’s most notable musical style and Senegal’s roots music. The album is a reggae album, no doubt, but unlike the increasingly numerous American reggae acts, Youssou’s tunes are laden with bolofon, marimba, and other West African musical staples. Like Africa’s reggae spokesman Alpha Blondy, Youssou sings in English and French, as well as Sengalese, once again as a way to draw connections between the two styles of music. His greatest inspiration for these songs is clearly Marley, as the album is bookended by nods to reggae’s forerunner.

“Marley” is even the name of the first song on Dakar Kingston. It rides in on African drum roles and then a rootsy reggae groove sets in with a jumping bassline and lead guitar twiddling in between Youssou’s singing. “Marley was a young soul who floated away/he showed the world the route to reggae/he was a really good man,” Youssou sings before adding, “He never intended to go away.” A certain tone in his voice shows his honesty in singing about Marley. The song’s chorus is a blend of famous Marley lines, and then poet Mutabaruka, a friend of Bob’s, speaking, “Marley gone? Marley never left!”

So, there’s the Kingston part of Dakar Kingston, so next we have “Joker”, a minor-key thought provoker, with lovely backing vocals like ghosts behind Youssou as he sings, “No, it’s not too late/to find my love.” Guest raps by Patrice at first seemed out of place to me. Youssou has a distinct voice, not overly concerned with melodic gracefulness, meaning it’s not forced. To add in raps in English felt like a marketing move to me. Many reggae and pop songs have rap interludes, but is that really necessary on this spiritually conscious record? However, the music behind Patrice is drum n’ bass-y and he also has a unique voice.

A key track is “Bamba”, a near-ska frolic with a running bassline and catchy chorus. Youssou’s English is rich with an accent, but he never sounds straining to get his message across, and when the horns come, staccato and piercing, the song comes together. “They are singing/and they are crying,” Youssou sings/speaks. There’s a lot of emotion here.

“Survie” is another key track. Sung in French, the melody is gorgeous, and the music is momentous. The chorus has excellent harmonies. Sonically, it’s a classic reggae groove, and for that we can indulge in the sound. It’s one of the few absolutely uplifting moments on this album.

Towards the second half of Dakar Kingston, “Don’t Walk Away” is a cover consciously reworked. Youssou’s English is hard to understand on this one, though. He focused more on emotion than articulation. Morgan Heritage is guest vocalist, and he fits in more than any other guest on the album.

As I said, the album is bookended by Marley nods, and for his last song Youssou takes on “Redemption Song”, a highly covered Marley tune. The opening riff, however, is played on, what is it, maybe a tres of some sort? The instrumentation takes on a full- bodied sound, something like Jimmy Buffet would go for to back a cool summer song. Is it a fair interpretation? Sure. Youssou sings it honestly. Unfortunately, nobody but Marley could sing “Redemption Song” as purely. The song is like the man’s last confession, and his album and live versions are all heart wrenching. Still, Youssou’s not trying to make it his own. He’s simply paying tribute. Such an intention is successfully apparent.

Bottom line: A great reggae album for fans of West African music.



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