Mbalax Decoded: A closer examination of the sounds of Youssou N'Dour

The Senegalese singer and percussionist Youssou N’Dour is known for his leading role in shaping the distinctive popular music style of Senegal known as mbalax.

Mbalax is a blend of diverse musical traditions and styles, the foundation of which are local Wolof rhythms, traditionally performed on the sabar (Senegalese conga) and tama (talking drum).

N’Dour is credited with popularizing mbalax with Afro-Cuban dance music, Haitian kompa arrangements and sounds from the Caribbean together with guitar and saxophone solos, ecstatic drum sessions and, on occasion, Sufi-inspired Muslim chants. With the arrival of jazz, soul, and rock music to the capital Dakar, the sound of mbalax has continued to evolve.

In this selection from his 2004 Grammy award winning album Egypt, Youssou combines both West African and North African musical influences. The record features instruments from both regions, such as the West-African kora and the Arab oud and provides a taste of the mbalax tradition:

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For more information on Islam and popular musical expression in West Africa, see Ryan Thomas Skinner’s essay, Notes on Islam and Popular Musical Expression in West Africa.

Youssou N’Dour performs on Friday, June 5 and Saturday June 6 at 8 pm at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House.