Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Sound of the City

God After Midnight

The two West African heroes didn't cancel each other out by hitting New York on the same Saturday night. Few seats went unfilled at Oumou Sangare's Town Hall concert. And while the same can't be said of the balconies at the Hammerstein, where Youssou N'Dour's Great African Ball was launched after Sangare finished, no one would claim he got the worst of it.

When Super Etoile came on at midnight, warmup vocalist Ouzin N'Diaye's penetrating high notes had me wondering whether the 39-year-old god of African music had gotten old and ugly. But just a few minutes later the taller, rosier N'Dour was projecting with such mellow body I was abashed I'd been taken in. The floor crackled, and for over three hours the star and his 12 musicians demonstrated why his Dakar shows are religious experiences. The music went on nonstop except when the band decided casually and confidently what to do next, although only percussionist-animateur Babacar Faye never seemed to wander off at all. As for N'Dour, he left momentarily to exchange the white robe that contrasted so spectacularly with the others' dark suits for an even more gorgeous rust-colored suit, and he didn't spend every minute singing. But at 3:30, 45 minutes after he'd led what appeared to be a show-topping sing-along on the Senegal-only hit "Birima," he was still performing feats of volume, clarity, and emotional outreach such American marathoners as the Grateful Dead never dreamed of.

The audience, which looked to be three-quarters Senegalese, danced only sporadically. White onlookers grooved to the rhythm that always sustained the synth underpinnings, guitar sallies, and tama clusters. In contrast, the mostly male Senegalese combatants tended to explode in bursts of limb and corkscrewing pelvis. Midway through, on the international hit "7 Seconds," Stevie Wonder followed the sound of his own harmonica onto the stage, where he traded vocal improvs with N'Dour until he'd had enough. It was an aptly wonderful moment--one among more than anyone could be bothered to count.

Village Voice, Apr. 27, 1999