Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of reasons why you, in 1994, might have been interested in Youssou N’Dour‘s The Guide (Wommat). They’re probably much the same as now – either you know and love Senegalese music, or you liked 7 Seconds when it came out. Either way, there’s a lot to enjoy on this album. It’s 25 years old this week, which is as good a reason as any to give it a listen.
N’Dour was, by this stage, very well established, having found success in his native Senegal and across Africa more than a decade earlier, and starting to gather European hits in the mid-eighties, starting in France. He had worked with Peter Gabriel on a number of occasions, including providing backing vocals for In Your Eyes. By 1993, his name was well known in the UK, even if his music was not particularly. He was one of the first artists to controversially fuse traditional African music with electronic sounds
This album opens with the catchy Leaving (Dem). Without understanding most of the lyrics or knowing much of the backstory, it’s going to be difficult to comment on specific tracks here, but at worst the tracks here are all pleasant, and some are very nice indeed. Old Man follows, with a softer jazz feel, getting disconcertingly faster as the track goes on.
Without a Smile (Same) and Mame Bamba follow. By the late 1980s, N’Dour was regularly providing French and English language lyrics and titles for album tracks alongside the various African (and apparently invented) languages that had appeared on earlier releases, but it often feels here as though the actual lyrics matter less than the feel of the words. N’Dour’s music seems broadly joyful and celebratory, and somehow understanding every word might spoil it – for me, this is a celebration of the beautiful world we live in and the people who inhabit it.
Which brings us to 7 Seconds, the brilliant collaboration with Neneh Cherry that hit the top three in the UK and number one in several European countries in mid-1994, certainly the most successful song to be sung in Wolof on the UK chart, and probably among the most successful French songs too. The collaboration appears to have been initiated by Cherry, who had been listening to N’Dour since his western breakthrough in the 1980s. It’s a pretty transparent song actually, talking about how a newborn doesn’t know anything about war or conflict. There’s a dark undertone, in a way, but really if you have thought of this as a joyful album so far, this underlines that feeling somewhat. Think of it as untainted, unknowing innocence, and it’s really rather beautiful.
N’Dour has his work cut out to keep you listening after that, though. How You Are (No Mele) is the track he chooses, which lists the independence dates of various African countries. It’s good, and unusually the meaning is firmly in the lyrics this time, so there’s a marked contrast between this and its neighbour Generations (Diamono), where the music is chirpy and beautiful even if you don’t understand the lyrics.
The questionable choice on this release was to put way too many tracks on here – this was the early nineties, and artists were beginning to explore extending the form of the album out to the full length of a CD. So Youssou N’Dour has put no fewer than fifteen tracks on here, and however varied, that’s enough to really burn the listener out. Couple that with English-speaking audiences being unused to other languages, and you’re pretty much guaranteed that a lot of listeners will just have this on in the background while doing something else.
Some tracks deserve that – Tourista is nice enough, but far from a standout song. Undecided (Japoulo) was the follow-up single in the UK, sadly only reaching number 53 but remaining to this day one of his biggest hits. Other than 7 Seconds it’s the most electronic track on here, which is undoubtedly why it was picked as a single. For that release, Neneh Cherry stepped in again to provide backing vocals, and Deep Forest reworked it, but despite those then-huge names, it failed to make much impact.
But this is where having so many tracks starts to become a problem – Love One Another (Beuguente), Life (Adouna) and My People (Samay Nit) fade into the background, rightly or wrongly. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this album, but its component parts would have stood out a lot better if there hadn’t been quite as many of them.
That isn’t to say that nothing stands out at all at this end of the album – Oh Boy is a nice jazzy piece, and Silence (Tongo) has some wonderfully lively uncredited backing vocals on it, and some great percussive work. It’s just that by now, most listeners will have lost a lot of their energy and interest. Closing the album is a translated cover of Bob Dylan‘s Chimes of Freedom, which is probably the most unexpected thing to turn up here. In particular, you can imagine this being brilliant as a live performance.
So, at the end, this is an interesting album. It feels almost offensive to N’Dour and all the great musicians who worked on this to describe it as background music, and of course that’s unfair, because speakers of other languages and listeners of other styles will find plenty to like here. Really, the problem is purely the number of tracks – and even that is only a problem when you sit down to pay it full attention. There’s enough great material here – just maybe don’t try to listen to it all at once.
You can still find The Guide (Wommat) at all major retailers.