New Stories, New Sounds: Youssou N’Dour’s Give and Take (Rokku Mi Rokka)

By Daniel Garrett

Youssou N’Dour’s Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take)
Produced by Youssou N’Dour
Recorded by Prince Mactar N’Dour
Executive Producers: David Bither, Boubacar N’Dour, Michelle Lahana
Nonesuch (Warner Music Group), 2007

Youssou N’Dour is a phenomenon: he is a twenty-first century griot of the world, a storyteller, historian, and wise man. The Senegalese musician and social activist, who sang for Nelson Mandela’s freedom, participated in Amnesty International and three Live 8 concerts, and helped establish internet cafes in Africa, was summarized by his collaborator Peter Gabriel thusly, “I’ve watched Youssou, 47, grow effortlessly, as more and more demands are made on him, into a major African leader, pioneering campaigns to improve the spread of technology, working to combat malaria and being involved, too, with Unicef. He is a source of inspiration to me not just as a musician but as a person,” in conclusion to a 2007 tribute to Youssou N’Dour that appeared in Time magazine.

There are eleven songs on Youssou N’Dour’s album Rokku Mi Rokka (translated from Wolof into English as Give and Take), and some of the songs feature musicians we have begun to hear in the United States, such as Bassekou Kouyate (on xalam) and Habib Faye (bass), and a cameo vocal appearance by Neneh Cherry. Beside xalam (a lute), and bass, the instruments on the recording include guitar, saxophone, trumpet, and marimba, among others.

On Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take), Youssou N’Dour sings in Wolof; and the album’s liner notes are in Wolof and English. Youssou N’Dour and Kabou Gueye’s song “4-4-44” is a festive celebration of freedom and family, of efforts appreciated and well-rewarded; and the music is strong on percussion and rhythm (the percussionists are Babacar Faye and Steve Shehan), with a kind of low, pleasantly rumbling sound—and N’Dour’s singing in it is a warm, male sound. The figure in “Pullo Ardo (The Shepherd)” is a wise, generous man—a simple vision of man in nature that might be a metaphor for self-acceptance, and for comfortable living in the world; and Youssou N’Dour’s vocal phrasing in the song is hard, fast, firm, short—he sounds sure of himself, full of conviction, and his voice is supported by guitars (those of Guy Kaye, Mody Ba, and Omar Sow) and drums (Alain Berge). To me, there is a somewhat North African sound in the song “Sama Gammu (My Rival),” possibly thanks to the use of the African stringed instrument called a xalam (or khalam), sometimes said to be of Malian origin, sometimes of an earlier Egyptian origin. Written by N’Dour with Mody Ba and Kabou Gueye, the song has a narrator who berates a man for his boasting style, saying that his rival’s possessions are likely borrowed or found, rather than earned, but N’Dour’s singing is matter-of-fact rather than mocking, as if exploring an ordinary village story. The role of aunt—of the father’s sister— as witness and guide, as the sharer of family tradition, is celebrated in N’Dour-Gueye’s “Bajjan (The Father’s Sister),” a song featuring Moustapha Faye’s marimba and the percussion work of Babacar Faye and Abdoulaye Lo. I suppose that having more than one person on an instrument is what gives much of the music a rich sound, yet the bright, jittery rhythm of “Bajjan” is not quite to my taste, though I can imagine the music played at a house party or in a public square. “Baay Faal,” which reminds me of Malian music, is a song named after a beggarly but spiritual character that is known and respected by his fellows, another “ordinary” person whose social role is acclaimed and celebrated in N’Dour’s songs. N’Dour’s singing of the song is exultant, sometimes rising to a high, nearly shrill, pitch.

It can be hard for people to accept new stories and new sounds in music, making Youssou N’Dour’s prominence more admirable. Youssou N’Dour has been one of the few African musicians known to western, and American, popular music audiences. (The marvelous web site Radio France Internationale also names Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango, and Mory Kante as among the rare artists who have broken through in the west, but I’d name as well Angelique Kidjo, and Femi Kuti and his father Fela, as well as Salif Keita, Abdulla Ibrahim, Sunny Ade, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo—but the list does not seem long: and what reaches one generation may not reach a subsequent generation.) That N’Dour’s songs contain stories that conjure a believable life are no small part of his appeal. That one can hear energy and joy in the music is also part of its charm.

On Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take), in “Sportif (Sportsman),” a song co-written by Mody Ba and Kabou Gueye, N’Dour suggests that the able sportsman should be supported when he loses as well as when he wins, that sport is fun and games and laughter should prevail. Some of N’Dour’s singing in “Sportif,” recalls for me the song “The Girl from Ipanema,” a surprising association. “Tukki” or “Travel” advocates travel as a way to gain knowledge, and that the pleasure of imagination is extended when one walks where one has first dreamed of being. The message is “don’t call me until you are ready for me” in the pleasingly pretty song “Lett Ma (Indecision)”—and the song, in which N’Dour’s voice is direct, sincere and instructive, seems to be about whether an intimate relationship will begin, though it could be about another kind of social interaction; and as the music moves, N’Dour develops a vocal rhythm that seems as emotional as it is musical. (“Travel” and “Indecision” were written by N’Dour with Ba and Gueye.) Someone who is called one of god’s favorites, Mullaay Dabbaax, a man who spoke for compassion and fairness, is asked for his support come Judgment Day in N’Dour-Gueye’s “Dabbaax,” and it is an elegy and a personal request for intervention. The song’s music, plaintive, rhythmic, sultry, while being identifiably African, has in my hearing echoes of Algerian rai, and American country music and blues.

“Xel (Think),” which has a big band production, remarks on the difference between human intelligence and the instinct that seems to govern much of the natural world, and encourages us to use our minds more. (It was written by N’Dour and Gueye with Max Calo.) The music achieves a density similar to the groove of a funk-rock band, and also a gospel choir, and an orchestra. It can take a little time to get used to a foreign music, but good music, as here, is worth the time and patience; and the reward is knowledge and pleasure. Youssou N’Dour ends Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) in a collaboration with Neneh Cherry, Matt Kent, and Cameron McVey, the song “Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling),” a lively declaration that Africans are moving into a new day, a new way of participating in the world, of which this collection provides persuasive and pleasing evidence.

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African,, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen,, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option,, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett says, “I think that cultivating the appreciation for different forms of culture, for international culture, within one’s self makes it more likely that one will stumble upon beauty and recognize it, and increases the possibility of peace among different peoples, by making us less strange to each other.”