Youssou N' Dour and Musical Meaning

Last night I saw Youssou N’Dour at BAM. It was one of the most emotional musical experiences of my life. It made me feel awe (again) at the undeniable, sublime power of music. His voice, and the phenomenal band he uses, penetrated me to the core. It got me thinking…

Some people are born masters- they have a gift which seems to come from beyond normal imagining. All the hard work and devotion in the world will never make a mere mortal into a Youssou N’Dour. His voice is the voice of all that is- pure, intense, shocking, completely unnerving, raw energy, immense beauty, destroying all defenses. Why and how are some people given the gift? What are we mortals to do, once we know that we cannot ever attain this native ability? We work, and learn to love our work, because of or despite this knowledge, spurred on by those farther up the mountain.

More to the point- the musicians in my milieu often speak in abstractions, in metaphor, in irony, indirectly. These things are part and parcel with our “post-modern” culture, the death of our religion, the  emptiness of certain aspects of our culture. But a universal truth is that music can rise above all that is banal, distracting, disenfranchising. Isn’t the point of music to bypass all defenses and deliver a direct blow to the heart? Youssou is completely one with his intent. One note and he can do this. (His religion is a big part of it). What is MY intent? What is the intent of  modern jazz? I’m not sure there is one easily defined (though there may be many). Very little  music at all blasts inside you like a dagger, with the clarity that N’Dour’s brings. Many of us are searching, and may ALWAYS be, for that direct hit, beyond ideas, beyond our defense mechanisms, our fear, our need to couch what we are saying with a wink or a snigger. Many of us may believe in something and yet never come close to being able to convey it with the clarity with which N’Dour speaks of his family and griot history.

It’s not easy: the struggle towards sublime beauty goes on. And that’s what so odd. It IS a struggle, and yet its attainment gives one the feeling of perfect ease.

To me there is only one reason to make music: listen to Youssou N’Dour (live) and you get it. It’s got nothing to do with the harmony or  rhythm you choose, your religion or race. Rather it has to do with the context you place yourself in, and your ability to allow the listener to experience  mystery, meaning, and the unfathomable treasure of simply being a human being.

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