The best introduction to Youssou N'Dour is through his utterly astonishing live shows. Orange County last got a chance when he gave a free performance at Irvine Meadows in 1990, one of the best local concerts of that year.
For those who missed the show, the concert film that airs tonight at 10 on KOCE Channel 50 serves as a next-best alternative. This performance, taped in Kentucky for the "Lonesome Pine Special" series, was part of that same 1990 tour.
N'Dour, hailing from Senegal in West Africa, is best known in the United States for his occasional collaborations with Peter Gabriel (it is his voice that soars over the fade-out of "In Your Eyes") and for his participation in one of the mammoth Amnesty International tours.
With Gabriel, he shares a sense of musical adventure and a desire to make something meaningful out of the much-overused term "world music." Where some cross-cultural excursions merely water down their sources, N'Dour builds something that is more than the sum of its parts, something that stands and breathes on its own.
In one of two brief interview segments on tonight's show, N'Dour explains how he grew up in a musical family, dreaming of making a modern music that would reflect urban Africa.
His dreams were realized in the music he creates with his superb backing band Super Etoile de Dakar, which weds the mbalax rhythms of Wolof-speaking Senegal with a lean uptown sheen, incorporating international influences that range from Afro-Cuban jazz to Motown. The emotional range is wide, mixing soft, lilting passages with muscular grooves.
Above it all floats N'Dour's voice, which carries in its high, keening flights more than a hint of the Islamic influence that extends into West Africa.
The one-hour concert film draws heavily from his 1990 album, "Set," a stellar showcase of urban African pop--sophisticated, driving, and spiritual. There is also an overarching political consciousness at work, which can be gleaned even from the few English passages.
Highlights include the bittersweet "Medina," with its haunting sax line, "One Day," a groove-driven plea for world peace, and "Set," which closes the show on a high-energy climax.
Production values on the film are good, although it is difficult to experience the real, visceral impact of talking drums through a TV speaker. With some wonderful dancing, the concert works on a visual level as well as on a musical one. Still, there's nothing like seeing N'Dour in person, and on the evidence of his subsequent 1992 tour (in support of the masterful album "Eyes Open"), he is only getting better. Watch tonight, but don't miss him live.
* "Lonesome Pine Special," with Youssou N'Dour and Super Etoile de Dakar, airs tonight at 10 on KOCE Channel 50.