By Amy Hunt, 21, reporting from Lexington, KY, on the awesome sound of mbalax
I recently spent a semester studying abroad in The Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa. It's on the west coast, kind of nestled within Senegal.
One of the most magical things about my experience there was its soundtrack: Everywhere you go in The Gambia, you are surrounded by music. I especially fell in love with mbalax, the Senegalese-Gambian genre that stars Youssou N'Dour and Viviane N'Dour. (Viviane got her start singing backup for the legendary Youssou and married his brother Boubacar.)
Mbalax kept my friends and me dancing everywhere we went, and whenever Viviane's "Waaw" came on we'd sing along as best we could (she sings in French and Wolof). Gambians would smile and ask, "You know Viviane?!"
Then I got back home and felt I was hopelessly asking the same of the Internet. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that you can't buy any of her stuff online. Not on iTunes, not on Amazon. But that's what's beautiful about YouTube. Check out Viviane videos there for "Waaw," "Kumu Neexul" and "Bamba Ji." If you like covers, I'd also recommend looking at the music blog Likembe to listen to her Wolof cover of Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody," which is called "Goor Fit".
On the other hand, Youssou N'Dour is one of the most well known musicians to come out of West Africa, and his music can be found everywhere. He's been in the business since the 1970s, and he's spanned a number of sounds and styles: from developing the mbalax sound with his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar in the early '80s (I recommend the album Immigrés), to his 1994 duet with Neneh Cherry "7 Seconds," to his album Egypt in which he sings about his religion, Senegalese Sufism. He plays everything from traditional Senegalese music to the Beatles, and he collaborates with Peter Gabriel, Wyclef Jean, Paul Simon and many others.
Youssou N'Dour is also highly involved with the non-profit Malaria No More, an organization aimed at eradicating the disease, and is a partner of the IntraHealth International fund. Oh, and he's also worked with the United Nations, UNICEF and Amnesty International. N'Dour is a leader in a tradition of Senegalese musicians who not only sing about social issues but are highly involved in them as well. Right now, many local artists are getting behind the current political movement and urging youth to vote, despite a crackdown on protests and criticism.
Youssou and Viviane N'Dour are only two of the many amazing musicians I heard while abroad. Baaba Maal, Orchestra Baobab, Thione Seck—they're all worth a listen. Senegal's got a world of musical exports beyond Akon; you just have to dig a little deeper to find it all.