Music Youssou N’Dour
Emma Jensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0281


Youssou N’Dour (b. 1959) is a world-renowned Senegalese pop star. He was born into a devout Muslim home in Dakar to Elimane N’Dour and Ndèye Sokhna Mboup. His mother and grandmother (Marie Sène Mawo) come from a line of griots, a tradition which N’Dour carries on as a self-proclaimed “modern griot.” N’Dour began singing casually at the age of twelve at public celebrations (weddings, baptisms, and kassak ceremonies which celebrate the end of circumcisions), joined a local theater group (Sine Dramatique) at fourteen, and was recruited to Star Band de Dakar in 1975. After his first radio recording circulated widely in Senegal in 1978, N’Dour’s growing reputation allowed him to break off from Star Band with several other previous members to form Étoile de Dakar in 1979. Two years later, Étoile fractured once again with N’Dour creating Le Super Étoile de Dakar and El Hadji Faye leading Étoile 2000. N’Dour was among several musicians and groups who began experimenting with the mbalax sound but most scholars credit him with both naming the genre and making it famous by moving Senegalese drum parts (tama and sabar rhythms) to electronic instruments. Before he had gained any attention internationally, he had already been a part of at least thirty albums on cassette. N’Dour made his first appearance in Europe in 1983 and his reputation grew rapidly. Not long after, he collaborated with musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. He gained more attention for his albums Nelson Mandela (1985) and Immigrés (1988) and his presence in the Amnesty International “Human Rights Now!” tour in 1988, which marked the beginning of his history of activism. However, it was his 1994 single “7 Seconds” with Neneh Cherry that made him an international star. N’Doour’s newfound fame did not pull him away from Senegal. He invested in Dakar and opened the Thiossane night club, Xippi recording studio (formerly SAPROM production company), record label Jololi (now renamed Prince Arts), and Futurs Medias media group. In 2004 he won a Grammy for Egypt—an Islamic praise album made in collaboration with the Fathy Salama Orchestra. N’Dour has also been chosen as the winner of the Polar Music Prize (2013) and the Praemium Imperiale (2017). His most recent international albums are Africa Rekk (2016) and History (2019). Outside his musical career, N’Dour ran for Senegalese president in 2012, but was disqualified for not having enough signatures. However, he has held various ministerial positions under President Macky Sall.

General Overviews

Cathcart 2019 is the newest biography on Youssou N’Dour and perhaps the best place to start for readers who want to know all about the Senegalese pop star. Aside from Cathcart 2019, most sources on N’Dour tell his history in small chunks. Bender 1991 has only a short biographical section on N’Dour, but it contains an oft-cited interview by Günter Gretz that is otherwise hard to find. Stapleton and May 1987 provides a detailed account of N’Dour’s early career and includes an interview regarding his thoughts on the beginning of mbalax and his process of moving indigenous drum parts to electric instruments. Durán 1989 also details the beginning of N’Dour’s career and discusses the beginning of his international popularity; it contains many commonly cited quotes from Durán’s interview with N’Dour. Durán 1999 catches up with N’Dour’s activity during the 1990s and gives more detail on the Mouride Islamic sect, the griot tradition, and the continued innovation of Le Super Étoile de Dakar. Nonesuch Records summarizes N’Dour’s career and provides recent news up to 2017 as well as detailed information on the five records N’Dour released under Nonesuch. The first half of Vasarhelyi 2008 provides a detailed account of N’Dour’s early life and career, complete with interviews from his family members, band mates, fans, and music industry professionals. The controversy behind N’Dour’s Egypt album is the focus of the film and it provides an in-depth look into Senegalese reactions after he won his 2004 Grammy.

  • Bender, Wolfgang. Sweet Mother: Modern African Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    The “Wrestling and Music: Senegal” section in chapter 1 (pp. 32–41) provides a brief history of postcolonial popular music in Senegal from the 1960s through the 1980s. It includes a section on Youssou N’Dour (pp. 35–40) with an extended quote from an interview with Günter Gretz. Originally published in German under the title Sweet Mother: Moderne Afrikanische Musik in 1985.

  • Cathcart, Jenny. Notes from Africa: A Musical Journey with Youssou N’Dour. London: Unbound, 2019.

    The most complete and up-to-date biography on Youssou N’Dour. See Books for more detailed information. Kindle edition; print edition forthcoming in February 2021.

  • Durán, Lucy. “Key to N’Dour: Roots of the Senegalese Star.” Popular Music 8.3 (1989): 275–284.

    A succinct, thorough article on N’Dour’s early career up to 1989. Includes interviews with N’Dour, his sister Ngone, some Senegalese fans, and members of the music industry. One of the most cited articles on N’Dour. Originally published in Folk Roots magazine.

  • Durán, Lucy. “The Xippi Trail: Lucy Duran Follows the Recent Footsteps of Senegalese Superstar Youssou N’Dour.” Folk Roots 21.5 (1999): 20–29.

    Written after Durán saw Le Super Étoile de Dakar perform in Dakar and Spain, both in 1999. This article, compared to “Key to N’Dour,” focuses more on the whole band and their histories. Durán interviews N’Dour about his then-recent musical projects. Includes color photography.

  • Nonesuch Records. “Youssou N’Dour.” 2020.

    Artist profile by Nonesuch Records, with whom N’Dour released Joko (The Link), Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du réér), Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take), Egypt, and the soundtrack to the documentary film I Bring What I Love. The page includes an “About” section on the artist, videos and pictures of performances, and links to news from 2007 to 2017. Clicking on an album leads to an “About this Album” page.

  • Stapleton, Chris, and Chris May. African All-Stars: The Pop Music of a Continent. London: Quartet Books, 1987.

    “Senegal and the Gambia” section from pp. 116–128. A detailed account of musical precursors to the mbalax genre and milestones of N’Dour’s early career. Includes parts of Stapleton’s interview with N’Dour where they discuss the formation of mbalax and the pop star’s innovation with moving drum parts to electric instruments.

  • Vasarhelyi, Elizabeth Chai, dir. Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love. New York: 57th & Irving, 2008.

    N’Dour’s early life and career until just after his Grammy win for Egypt (2004), the album that is the focus of the film. Includes original music and archival footage of past performances. Dedicated to his grandmother, Marie Sène Mawo (1910–2006). Dialogue in English, French, and Wolof; English subtitles available. Run time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

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