Yossou N’Dour, the Senegalese singer who forged links between Paris and Africa, and then between American hip-hop and the music of his homeland, before returning to his regional roots, has positioned himself in a land of contrast. He has been recording textured albums that go out on a limb with tradition-grounded experimentalism and touring to support those works with one of the world’s most renowned party bands, the Super Etoile. “Egypt,” his latest for Warner Music’s Nonesuch label, is a cerebral blend of his mbalax with Egyptian and Arabian orchestral sounds; his 110-minute romp at the Henry Fonda Music box was a booty-shaking bonanza.
N’Dour, who is arguably superceded only by Bob Marley in successfully exporting a foreign sound to the world, boasts a super-human emotional range in his tenor, capable of evoking fear or rage or tranquility with no need for translation from Wolof. The 18 songs in Wednesday’s set — two were in English — were given thoughtful and forceful presentations, buoyed by a four-man drumming army that was never less than hyperkinetic.
Those percussionists are the backbone of the live act (conversely, stringed instruments drive his recordings), and they create a jigsaw of rhythm that disguises the location of the “one” in a backbeat. Atypical for African bands with a steady U.S. following, N’Dour and the Super Etoile are more likely to incorporate elements of ska than American funk; use keyboards to echo rudimentary mallet instruments instead of polish a melody; and push the finger-picked guitars of Mamadou Mbaye and Pape Omar Ngom into circular patterns rather than linear solos.
Ultimately, like Salif Keita of Mali, N’Dour sells his audience a bit short, flashing just one side of his multifaceted personality and repertoire. He made what may well be his masterpiece, “Nothing in Vain,” in 2003, and its gentle tone would be a welcome reprieve from the nonstop groove. But in the confines of the still-underrefurbished Henry Fonda Music Box, which boasted a remarkable balance and clarity in the sound mix, African music found a warm home for a night.