Monday, September 22, 2003

N'Dour plays, people dance

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall is probably the finest room for music in the city. But it does have one shortcoming, and the Saturday night concert by African-music superstar Youssou N'Dour exposed it: there just isn't enough floor space for dancing.

The Senegalese singer performed a two-hour set, much of which featured his irresistible, dance-happy mbalax rhythms in songs the crowd knew by heart. But even when N'Dour slowed things down and expressed the notion to the dancers that they could sit one out, nobody was willing to stop.

The main floor was half-full, and a handful of balcony and box tickets were sold. About 30 minutes into the show, the majority of the crowd squeezed into the two aisles on the floor and danced the remainder of the night. The show would have been better suited for a venue with a dance floor, but to the credit of the Aronoff staff (which has never had to deal with such an issue at a Tony Bennett or an Irish Tenors show), the aisle dancers were left alone.

Even a couple of the ushers were seen dancing, and who could blame them? N'Dour's band Le Super Etoile is as highly regarded as the singer himself. The nine-piece group displayed its mastery of mbalax, N'Dour's light and nimble version of Afrobeat - a mix of African and Caribbean percussion and melodies with Western pop music and instrumentation.

N'Dour's multi-octave singing voice, which he delivered in African dialects, French, and English, was the haunting wail that completed the sound. (He can be heard harmonizing with Peter Gabriel toward the end of Gabriel's hit song "In Your Eyes.")

N'Dour was certainly the star, but the crowd went equally crazy for Jimi Mbaye and Assane Thiam.

Every good Afrobeat band needs a great electric lead guitarist, and Mbaye's simple, looping melodies powered the group. N'Dour noted that Mbaye picked up guitar because of Jimi Hendrix, "but he plays like an African." The crowd agreed loudly.

Thiam played talking drum, which he held under his arm and hit with a bare left hand and a stick in the right hand. When he stepped forward for one of several talking-drum solos, the dancing became more feverish, and lifting up one's shirt high enough to expose one's mid-section was the dance move of choice.

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