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Youssou N'Dour: Desert blues
Senegal's Youssou N'Dour attempts fascinating fusions

N'Dour plays his own style of urban pop.
N'Dour plays his own style of urban pop.
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Time named Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour one of this year's most influential folks in the arts. N'Dour, who's also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, was honored for both his supple tenor and his social activism. With his backup band, Super Etoile, he kicked off a U.S. tour last week for his new international release, Rokku Mi Rokka (Give and Take) - with a stop at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, Dec. 6.

N'Dour's an originator of modern mbalax, the sabar-drum sound of the Dakar street done up as urban pop, spiked with jazz, funk, reggae, son y rumba and other African diaspora beats. Less auspiciously, he's also known for overproduced Europop crossovers like the Paul Simon-esque "In Your Eyes" with Peter Gabriel, which launched N'Dour's international career in 1986, and the '94 funk duet "7 Seconds" with post-pop diva Neneh Cherry.

N'Dour's recent, more interesting fusions rise from African roots. After refusing a U.S. tour at the start of the Iraq catastrophe in 2003, he put out Egypt (2004), a subtle set of songs for Sufi saints with a Cairo orchestra in the mix. Rokku Mi Rokka takes its inspiration from the desert blues of northern Senegal and Mali.

I couldn't nail N'Dour down for an interview, so I can't say for sure how much he'll stray from the new album in concert. There's some utter groove on this disc. My standout picks include "Dabbaax," a silky Sahel blues, and the lush and funky Arabic-edged "Lett Ma." There's "Bajjan," a classic mbalax cut, but also a dull hip-hoppy duet, "Wake Up Africa," with Neneh Cherry.

Rokku's not a perfect album, but with N'Dour and Super Etoile live onstage it's all good. You'll be dancing.

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