On a recent warm evening in Senegal, among the quiet beaches and French colonial homes of Gorée Island, Youssou N'Dour stands onstage, singing in his astonishing tenor, swaying rhythmically to the beat of a hand drum. The crowd is riveted, leaping to its feet at the end of every number. One song in particular, called "Africa," brings N'Dour himself to tears. You'd have to be made of stone not to join him.
In Africa, everyone knows N'Dour. The 49-year-old singer, who has collaborated with Sting, Bono, and Paul Simon, helped popularize Senegalese pop music - a mixture of jazz, soul, rock, and drums known as mbalax - around the world. But nothing has galvanized him like his current cause, the distribution of "microcredits," or small loans, to the very poor in Senegal, which help local residents start or improve their own businesses.
By offering such loans to craftsmen, artisans, and laborers, N'Dour hopes to change the lives of thousands of men and women who live in a country where jobs are so scarce, hundreds of people lose their lives every year trying to reach Europe in flimsy boats. His organization, called Birima, is named after an African king famous for keeping his promises to his people. Accordingly, the only collateral Birima requires to secure a loan is a person's "word and his family's good name."
"The banking system is not adapted to people who don't have any guarantee or security," explains N'Dour. "So it is impossible for institutions to have a simple relationship with people. Our credit is based on a person's promise to pay it back. And the dignity that lends them produces extraordinary results." Italian clothier Bennetton agrees; the company has created a campaign, "Africa Works," around the program's first beneficiaries: a musician, a fisherman, and a jewelry-maker, among others. N'Dour hopes the ads will inspire people to seek his help. As for those unable to read, Birima agents will travel the country, spreading the word with illustrated leaflets.
N'Dour's family was Griot - an African caste considered the keepers of the oral tradition - on his mother's side. "Before the media, we were the people informing others," says N'Dour. As a teen, he started singing professionally; at 20, he formed his first band. Soon, N'Dour was performing in Europe, where he was noticed by Peter Gabriel and invited to tour with him.
Yet despite N'Dour's rise, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal: to help those less fortunate. In 1988, he took part in an Amnesty International Human Rights tour; in 1991, he was named an ambassador for UNICEF; in 2006, he launched an African health initiative to prevent malaria.
On the night of his Gorée Island concert - held in honor of his Birima campaign - N'Dour personifies Senegal's future and its past. The island, a short ferry ride from the city of Dakar, once served as the final exit point for slaves shipped to Europe and the Americas. But tonight, the serene setting represents the country's new history: as a center for music, hope - and opportunity.
Three of our favorite Youssou N'Dour tunes: