Youssou N’Dour & Aurelio MartínezA stranger at home

Published in 2009clockTime to read: 4m40s
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The discovery of a world of music totally new to him intrigued the well-known Senegalese musician, Youssou N’Dour, when he chose his protégé Aurelio Martínez, a Garifuna from Honduras. That and his talent. To explore his African roots was the dream of Aurelio Martínez. That and getting to know a sublime artist who, like himself, was committed to a variety of causes.

by Véronique Mortaigne 2009
  • Youssou N’Dour
    The Mentor
  • Aurelio Martínez
    The Protégé

When, at the invitation of his mentor, the young musician arrived in Dakar at the end of 2008, he found himself on a strange planet where they spoke Wolof and French but no Spanish, or very little. The African from Honduras was taken for what he was: a foreigner. He was offered wristwatches, taxis, Senegalese glass paintings and little rip-offs in the street.

The first surprise for Aurelio was to discover that Senegal is a Muslim country. Landing in Dakar on the Tabaski (the Senegalese equivalent of Eid al-Adha, the festival during which a sheep is sacrificed), he found the streets given over to prayer. Even the taxi-driver took out his mat and turned to face Mecca. “In Honduras it’s the women who go to church. Here, bowed in prayer, were men,” Martínez noted. Youssou N’Dour wasn’t there. He’s a busy man. So his protégé had to fend for himself for a while.

“My first challenge here was to understand how feelings were conveyed, to find how they ‘feel’ in these cultures,” explains the Honduran, who quickly sought out musicians, played with the mythical Orchestre Baobab, and set to finding out more about his mentor. “Youssou is a social leader, almost a religious leader. Everyone believes in him. It goes beyond music.”

At the first meeting at Youssou N’Dour’s place, and then later in his Dakar studio, things began to happen. “To guide Aurelio I concentrated on his voice, using my international experience to awaken in him things that had been asleep.” N’Dour listened. The Garifuna percussion was very heavy, he said, it needed to be made clearer.

“Of course Aurelio needed to learn better arrangement, production and voice techniques. But it was in a different way that I could be most useful to him,” says Youssou N’Dour. “He had to be himself, sure of himself, proud of his music and ready to take on the world. I myself had a mentor – Peter Gabriel.”

“My meeting with Peter Gabriel wasn’t planned. He didn’t teach me music, but he did teach me so much else! At the time, white people were telling us how to do things, and what to do, and we did it. But with Peter Gabriel, it was more him listening to me. After working with him for two years I felt sure of my identity, what I represented. With him I learned the diplomacy of production, and studio work. Finding and, especially, insisting on what people are going to end up hearing. Peter Gabriel also taught me to see how a concert develops, to take control of the space on stage, to play in a concert as one acts in a theatre, to always be imagining something else.”

Youssou N’Dour gives a big Christmas concert in Dakar every year. In 2008 it was organized at the Demba Diop stadium, one of three big stadiums in the capital. During the first part of the concert, the full spectrum of Senegal’s modern scene – rap, reggae, mbalax and more – takes over. Young people go wild, and the atmosphere is electric – the dancing is jubilant, and the crowd wildly reactive. N’Dour will appear, as usual, around one in the morning, with his protégé as a guest.

When Martínez comes on stage, in front of this audience who he doesn’t know and who don’t know him, the star of Dakar is in the wings. With his guitar and graceful voice, the Honduran has to keep it together, in song and in the Garifuna language. That night, Martínez made his way into a kind of international Africanness.

Extracted from an article written by Véronique Mortaigne for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2008/2009 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Véronique Mortaigne is contemporary music editor at the Paris daily newspaper, Le Monde. She has written many books, including Cesaria Evora, la voix du Cap-Vert, Sons Latinos, Fado, chant de l’âme, Les Musiques du Maghreb and Musiques du Nordeste brésilien. She is also co-author of 9e cercle, a documentary film about the worldwide journey taken by Black music.

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