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Marty Lipp skips the ball and visits Youssou at the pub.

Concert review: April, 2002
Photo by Sitoh
N'Dour: Photo by Sitoh Youssou N'Dour apparently prefers New York to Paris in the spring. For the past three years, he has brought his "African Ball" -- an all-night concert akin to his club dates in Senegal -- to the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan; for the past two years, he has preceded those shows with acoustic shows at Joe's Pub in New York City.

While last year's acoustic show was a more subdued affair, with N'Dour showcasing that justifiably celebrated voice of his, this year's set was bristling with energy. Like MTV's "Unplugged" series, the acoustic show on April 11th made its own electricity. By show's end, the band having played older tunes as well as ones from N'Dour's forthcoming "Nothing's In Vain (Thiono Du Reer)", the club was up and dancing, barely able to contain its spontaneous enthusiasm.

N'Dour and his band took the stage unannounced and soon began some desultory play, which slowly built up intensity and cohesiveness. N'Dour began in his lower registers as if he were gently waking his vocal chords -- and the audience -- for the soaring to come.

His second tune was propelled by the big gulping beats of the tama, played by his longtime band mate, Assane Thiam. Again the tune started slow, but it soon kicked into a faster, percussion-dominated jam.

The next number began with N'Dour's right-hand guitar man Jimmy Mbaye plucking out a simple repeating melody that laid down the groove that the entire band soon hitched onto. On several of his subsequent solos, Mbaye dampened his strings as he played, making the guitar sound reminiscent of the west African n'goni.

The five-piece band effortlessly showed what those hundreds of nights playing together has done for them. Barely breaking a sweat they all gathered around a fundamental beat, emphasizing different aspects of the surrounding polyrhythms; pushing and pulling the beat to urge the juggernaut along.

"Beykat," off his last album, "Joko" (Nonesuch), with its skittering mbalax rhythms had the audience totally in N'Dour's power, with people springing from their tables to dance. Thiam's extended solo drew sustained applause as he happily carried the room along with him.

If there was justice in the world, N'Dour's "Liggeey" would be his U.S. hit with its catchy sing-along English chorus, "A day like this will come/A day like this will go." By that time, a good portion of the room was up and dancing -- cabaret license laws be damned.

N'Dour ended with "Birima," a mid-tempo tune that rolls along leisurely, but like many of his live songs, builds up power as it rolls along. As the band behind him gave the singer a solid rhythmic foundation, he launched into his shouts and ululations, breaking free of the rhythm, arms raising up, communing with the room and maybe even beyond.

After a tantalizing taste of what the band was capable of in a small venue in a limited set, it's easy to imagine why their home-grown shows can stretch out easily to dawn. Who would want to stop laying down these grooves unless you had to from exhaustion? - Marty Lipp

Read Marty Lipp's 2000 RootsWorld interview with Youssou N'Dour


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