You don’t have to know anything about African music to enjoy Set. That’s partly because Youssou N’Dour — a singer from Senegal who opened twice for Peter Gabriel and performed with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Tracy Chapman on the giant 1988 Amnesty International tour — is musically as cosmopolitan as any of his potential listeners. There are Latin touches on his new album, hints of reggae, and horns right out of James Brown, not to mention delicate strings in a song called ”Xale,” deftly arranged to feature an expert (and lyrical) solo for the double bass.
But at the same time the album (sung in a language called Wolof) sounds thoroughly African, far more than the one N’Dour released last year. That’s partly because of his eager, dancing voice, husky with the smell of a culture clearly not ours. And it’s also because of the rhythm of his 9-piece band (joined at various times by any of 14 Western guests), which darts over and around the beat with far wilder freedom than most other musicians who blend African music and Western pop allow themselves. You can’t go wrong with this record; every track is a joy. A