Now voyager

Jun 28, 2000 at 12:00 am

Throughout Europe his records are filed under "N." He’s Africa’s biggest star. However, in the United States, you’ll still find his music in the back of the store in the small African section. Fifteen years ago, Youssou N’Dour broke onto the international scene opening for Peter Gabriel on the So tour, where he introduced the world to mbalax. It’s a Senegalese style that N’Dour 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.

N’Dour 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, it’s all over the map. "This Dream" sounds like a bonus track from Peter Gabriel’s So album, a reminder of how two remarkably different voices can melt together magically – N’Dour’s acrobatic passion blends wonderfully with Gabriel’s moody eeriness. The two Wyclef Jean collaborations are as clever and witty as Jean’s 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 you’ll be singing along even if you don’t speak a word of Wolof.

What unites this diverse album is N’Dour’s 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 you’re looking for an infectious CD that defies categorization, Joko is a perfect choice.

Dan Rosenberg writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].