Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Arms Wide Open: Youssou N'Dour Concert – Yonge-Dundas Square – September 6, 2008

I've attended many concerts in my life, some great, some pleasant and some god awful. Even with the great ones, rare is the concert where several years down the road I can still recall the event with such near perfect clarity that it is like it happened only yesterday. In fact, it has happened only once. Two years ago this week, the great Senegalese singer, Youssou N'Dour, gave a concert that, for me, is one of the finest, if not the finest, I've ever seen. In town for the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to introduce the documentary about himself, Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love (it has since opened in New York, but never here), he agreed to perform a free concert at the city's core, the Yonge-Dundas Square.

I first saw N'Dour back in 1986 when he toured with Peter Gabriel – he sings with Gabriel on “In Your Eyes” (amongst others) – and then again during the 1988 Amnesty International Concert Tour at Maple Leaf Gardens that also featured Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, kd Lang and Tracy Chapman. Both times, he was either supporting another artist (Gabriel), or part of a tour with several other acts (Amnesty), so I never had the privilege of seeing him solo. It was something I always wanted to do because he has such a pure, ringing tenor that, even when he sings in a language you don't know (whether it's Wolof, one of Senegal's languages, or French), he pulls you into his songs and allows you to understand the feeling, if not the words.

So when this concert was announced, nothing would keep me from it. My wife and I headed down at 5pm for the 8pm concert because we were determined to be in the front row. We got a take-out meal from the Eaton Centre and then sat on our fold-up chairs in the middle of the Square. We didn't want to look too keen, so we didn't head to the front until we saw people begin to congregate there. We moved our chairs right up to the fence, dead centre, and waited. As the crowd started to fill in, we folded up our chairs and leaned them against the fence and stood. We soon picked up a conversation with a young African exchange student on our left who was attending York University, and then with a mixed couple (she was black Senegalese; he was white Canadian) on our right. As we chatted, it came out that the man used to play keyboards in N'Dour's band, but had moved back to Canada when life on the road got to be too much (he wasn't just telling us a story because after the concert we saw he and his wife welcomed backstage like old friends by N'Dour's band members). The crowd grew and grew (estimates ranged from 4000 to 6000 people) with a true rainbow coalition standing side by side (every continent and dozens of races were represented).

That is another thing about N'Dour. He is a devout Muslim who is also a strong and passionate unifier. He believes that we must all come together as one if we are to survive (whether it's in Africa, or the whole world). Some would say it is a naive view, but one look at that crowd that night suggested otherwise. And then the concert began. Introduced by Spike Lee (at TIFF to promote his own film, the flawed but still interesting Miracle At St. Anna, he had also produced N'Dour's 1992 album, Eyes Open), N'Dour and his incredible band hit the stage. The mixed couple told us before the show that this was at the very end of a long concert tour, so the band's energy level might be reduced. If this was reduced I can only imagine what they must be like when they're completely energized, because man, the passion and energy of N'Dour and his band was a revelation. He sang several songs I knew (“Mame Bamba”, “Birima”, “New Africa” and “Chimes of Freedom”) and many I didn't, but it hardly mattered. The perfect weather, the incredible playing, the wonderful singing and dancing (four or five times during the concert, one of his band members donned a traditional African costume and entertained us with gravity-defying moves) held me mesmerized throughout the 100-minute concert. Positioned right up against the railing, I was so engrossed in the concert that I had no sense of the crowd behind me. During a late-concert song, I turned around to look and saw this electrified, unified, pulsing mass of happiness. If there is one song that defined the evening and easily topped the same song on album, it was “7 Seconds.” Recorded in 1994, as a hit single with Neneh Cherry, on this night N'Dour brought out Divine Brown, a wonderful local singer, to perform with him. Their duet was so heartfelt, playful, loose and alive I thought (to borrow a phrase my Critics at Large colleague, Kevin Courrier, likes to use) the top of my head was going to come off by the end.

At concert's end, we went to the backstage area and thanked some of his musicians (N'Dour had left as he was exhausted) for this truly once-in-a-lifetime concert. Coming at the end of a long tour, and following the debut of the documentary, this concert became for N'Dour, his band and us, a celebration. It is a celebration I recall whenever I need a lift. And it works every time.

You can get a taste here, as (from a distance) Divine Brown and Youssou N'Dour sing “7 Seconds”

- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is about to launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, at an event in Toronto on Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Details to follow.

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