"Dakar-Kingston,'' Youssou N'Dour's latest U.S. release, mingles reggae with the Senegalese singer's own mbalax. Naturally, N'Dour began his Thursday night show at a sold-out Lisner Auditorium with the album's formula: Jamaican lope on bottom, West African polyrhythms in the middle and his keen tenor on top.
For this project, N'Dour has even added former Bob Marley keyboardist Tyrone Downie to his impeccable 10-piece band, Super Etoile. The charismatic vocalist performed reggae-accented versions of his anthemic "Medina'' and 1994 international hit, "7 Seconds,'' as well as "Marley,'' the new album's heartfelt but lyrically clumsy ode to Jamaica's super star. Featuring an unusually large quota of English-language material, the set lasted a mere 65 minutes, peaking with a version of Marley's "Redemption Song.''
But N'Dour wasn't half finished. What seemed at first to be a generous selection of encores sprawled into a second set that lasted ten minutes longer than the first. Singing mostly in Wolof, his native tongue, the singer led the band through songs that — as he sometimes acknowledged — are not well-known outside of Africa. That hardly mattered, since Super Etoile's chiming guitars were exhilarating, its four percussionists provided irresistible locomotion and N'Dour's sharp yet smooth voice is mesmerizing whatever he sings.
Although he's dueted successfully with such Western musicians as Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry, not all of N'Dour's attempts at crossover are successful. ("Dakar-Kingston'' is far from his best work.) As the second half of Thursday's concert demonstrated, the singer is more authoritative in his own musical environs, where songs are looser and longer, percussion solos are common and dancing is as important as social commentary.
In addition to the 11 musicians, N'Dour's supporting cast included several dancers, whose moves ranged from comic moonwalking to gravity-taunting gymnastics. A few audience members were also pulled onstage to prance — mostly fluidly, although one young boy displayed robotic hip-hop moves rather than African-style hip-swiveling. N'Dour failed to get the kid to shimmy, but that certainly wasn't because the music wasn't sufficiently sinuous.