Youssou N'Dour and Aurelio Martínez

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 7)

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.

Youssou N'Dour and Aurelio Martínez

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 7)

An Interview with Aurelio Martínez early in the mentorship

How was your meeting with Youssou N’Dour?
Being a finalist in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative I went to Senegal as one of the three chosen candidates. Going to Africa was a dream for me, and also for Andy Palacio (1960-2008), my friend and master in the Garifuna music I represent. When I found out that Youssou N’Dour was to be my mentor I was thrilled. I’ve followed his career, and the careers of Salif Keita from Mali and Baaba Maal from Senegal. I really admire Youssou N’Dour – he’s an artist of peace whose voice and musical richness are unique, and I’ve always felt very close to his political and human struggles. I was expecting to meet a solemn, quiet person – instead I found someone joyful, very open, a man with a big heart – a kind of King of Senegal!

What are you expecting from your work together?
It’s an incredible opportunity for my career. Depending on our timetables, we’re due to meet up again, in Senegal, to rehearse together and see if I can accompany him on a future tour in Europe and Africa. I can learn a lot from Youssou N’Dour’s composition work. Percussion is also a key element, and I’ll be listening extremely carefully to the djembé, the tama, the tabar – all these complex African drums. I’m planning to develop a new musical style out of our work together.

You are a singer, but you are also a member of the National Congress of Honduras, where you represent the Garifuna, a community with its origins in Africa. Does that make you feel closer to your mentor?
Yes, because I’m also going to try and show Youssou N’Dour the richness of my culture. Our work together may lead to greater world recognition of the Garifuna minority, which accounts for around 10 per cent of the population of Honduras.

Besides that, we can also benefit from our differences, because the African roots of the Garifuna are in Nigeria [the Yoruba ethnic group, while Senegal is mainly Peul and Wolof]. But thanks to artists like Youssou N’Dour the whole of Africa is linked, not divided. The Garifuna are descended from slaves shipwrecked on the island of St Vincent who intermingled with Arawak Indians. We arrived in Honduras two hundred years ago, and African traditions are still strong in our cooking, with fried bananas, for example, and fufu made from cassava. We also have our own religion, and our language, which is what I sing in. And of course our customs as free men and women.

Is music important in all that?
Very. I come from a family of musicians. My parents didn’t want me to go down that road, so I ran away from home in 1985, at the age of 14, and followed my vocation with the help of the elders. They taught me everything. Andy Palacio from Belize was a kind of a mentor for me. Youssou N’Dour will be another, and I’m going to devote myself 100 per cent to the Rolex Arts Initiative, because there’s a lot more than just me involved here.

Youssou N'Dour and Aurelio Martínez

A year of mentoring

Voices of the people (Chapter 3 of 7)

On stage at New York’s Nokia Theatre on Broadway in late 2008, Youssou N’Dour and Aurelio Martínez shook hands and embarked the year-long journey of working together. New York was somehow neutral ground for these two artists from opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Youssou N’Dour, is agriotthrough his grandmother. This caste, composed of respected members of Senegalese village society, holds sway over the people by singing the genealogy of princes, praising the bravery of the powerful or lecturing them when they stray. Tall and slender, “You” is the spokesman for Black cool in Dakar and an advocate for the creative values of urban Senegal. His songs are a commentary on the issues of his time: soap operas destroying customs, the use of Africa as the dumping-ground for the world’s toxic waste, to name but a few.

Youssou N’Dour is present on all fronts: at the G8 in 2007, beside Bono and Sir Bob Geldof to call for the cancellation of African countries’ debt; at the UN in Geneva with Roll Back Malaria, which campaigns against that particular scourge.

Shunning labels, the Senegalese is politically committed and a passionate pan-African. Some say that if he wanted to, he could be a political leader, even president of Senegal.

Aurelio Martínez listens to him from his Central American viewpoint, and with the attentiveness of a nomad in search of his origins. “When I was selected as a finalist in the Rolex Arts Initiative, I learned I had to go to Africa. And that was my dream! It was also the dream of Andy Palacio, who was my master and friend [a Black music star from Belize, Andy Palacio died suddenly in 2008 at the age of 47]. And there I met my mentor, Youssou N’Dour. It was such a thrill! I really admire him; he’s an artist for peace, with an amazing voice. And I felt very close to his political and human causes.”

Aurelio Martínez is no political light-weight, either. President of the Commission of Ethnic Peoples of the National Congress of Honduras, he represents his people, the Garifuna – Afro-Caribbeans living mostly in the province of Atlántida. Martinez is the first Black member of parliament in the history of Honduras with its 6.2 million inhabitants, about 10% of whom are Garifuna and speak their own language. In 2001, Garifuna dances, music and language were together proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Martínez is fighting to prevent his culture from being confined to eastern Honduras. “My parents didn’t want me to be a musician, but, at the age of 14, I left home for La Ceiba, where I live now. I learned by doing, going around to the places where the older musicians played, and, since I had talent, they taught me.”

The meeting between Youssou N’Dour and Aurelio Martínez is significant, for it brings together two worlds that were already interlinked, two men who grew up in poverty and whose elders imparted to them their knowledge and roots.

Youssou N'Dour and Aurelio Martínez

A year of mentoring

Shared language (Chapter 4 of 7)

“I knew nothing about the Garifuna culture. One day I saw a documentary on the Blacks of Colombia, and it aroused my interest,” says Youssou N’Dour, explaining his choice of protégé from among the three candidates put forward for the Arts Initiative. He also gives another reason: “Aurelio has talent.” The first time they met, the African singer noticed the tenacity of his protégé who, in turn, echoes his affection: “I thought he was always calm and serious, but he’s not, he’s a joyful man. And in Senegal he’s a king.”

The powerful forms of music played by mentor and protégé are handed down orally. In this one-to-one learning experience there will be no methodical progressing through stages of technical mastery, no planned curriculum to follow. Instead, a path will be mapped out by concerts, each one a passionate rendezvous with the audience.

In New York, Martínez discovered the Super Étoile de Dakar, the impressive orchestra that accompanies Youssou N’Dour. Martínez was fascinated by the percussion instruments, especially the djembé, the drum so common in West Africa. The Garifuna also have drums, which they play in a style similar to, yet different from the African way.

Martínez stresses that “Youssou N’Dour also had to feel the music of my people, and its connection with Africa.” The Garifuna people come from the Gulf of Guinea, near Benin and Nigeria, an area dominated by the Yoruba ethnic group, while Senegal is mainly populated by the Fulani and Wolof. The Garifuna, who originated from the intermingling of slaves shipwrecked on the island of Saint Vincent and Arawak Indians, found refuge in Central America.

In the province of Atlántida, by the Caribbean Sea, the Garifuna live, like the inhabitants of Senegal, to the rhythm of music and song. In his songs Aurelio Martínez describes his people’s struggle for survival and the threats hanging over this minority – forced emigration, land speculation and racial discrimination – but lightly, with tact and cool.

Africa is earth-mother, “home”.

Youssou N'Dour and Aurelio Martínez

A year of mentoring

A stranger at home (Chapter 5 of 7)

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 forMentor & 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.

A stranger at home

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 forMentor & 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.

Youssou N'Dour and Aurelio Martínez

A year of mentoring

After a year with the master (Chapter 6 of 7)

Aurelio Martínez talks about his year as a Rolex protégé

How did you feel after your stay in Dakar?
It was a great experience, an experience of sharing, with a lot of musicians. In Dakar, spending time with Youssou N’Dour, I realized that music could take a performer a long way. I had almost finished my new album in Honduras, but I revised it, so to speak, in Dakar, taking Youssou’s advice. I had my sound engineer, Ivan Duran, with me, and we worked with Senegalese artists, musicians from the historic Orchestra Baobab and Youssou’s group, Super Étoile. In the future, I’d really like to record an album in Africa in the same fashion, and perhaps my mentor will be able to help me make this dream come true.

What have you learned from Youssou N’Dour?
I was able to get very close to the music he plays, and he gave me some useful tips on singing technique. Most of all, he showed me that I have what it takes to build a world-class career. Everywhere I went with him, I admired the way he’s continually evolving, and how he conveys feeling in his music – even if the audience rarely understands the language he sings in. This similarity with my work has given me the hope that I can attain the same goal, and help make Garifuna culture known throughout the world. Working with Youssou as my mentor has been reassuring, and helped me realize that there’s a market for this kind of music.

Did anything surprise you about Youssou N’Dour?
The power of his voice, his technique – the vitality of his music and his culture. And even more, the social role he plays as a musician, and his generosity.

Has your relationship with him changed your relationship with music?
Not really, because music has been with me from a very early age. Youssou taught me little variations. But he thinks I have to start by having confidence in my ability, before developing new singing techniques. And I think he’s right. Both of us are Afro-descendants, and somehow the feeling of being African is best expressed through rhythm.

Youssou N'Dour and Aurelio Martínez

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 7 of 7)

Interview with Youssou N'Dour

How did you work with Aurelio Martínez?
There was no hard and fast plan. You get more out of taking tea together and chatting. Aurelio talked to me a lot when he came to my home, in Dakar, to my family. But then, you don’t learn to sing – you have to be inspired.

What do you think your protégé learned from coming to Dakar?
In Honduras Aurelio is a well-known singer, and very busy. He needed to experience Africa first-hand, to really be here, to take the time to see it. He’s an African from Central America. Where he comes from, the tradition is intact. He represents a facet of the Black world we’re not very familiar with here. And he learned that our musicians can play his music too.

What was the main thing you wanted to convey to him?
He lacked confidence at an international level because Honduras has fewer links with the outside world than Senegal, which is five hours from Paris by plane. I’ve always wanted to break down barriers, and we tried to do that together.

You invited Aurelio to share the stage with you, first in Dakar and then in Europe, at the Vienne Jazz Festival in France, for example. How did you choose these occasions?
It happened quite naturally – we were giving a concert in Vienne, where the venue [a Roman amphitheatre] was magnificent, and so was the atmosphere. He played solo first and then my musicians just spontaneously got up onto the stage to accompany him. I think he was very pleased. Near the end of my concert, I asked him to join me in singing Sama Gammu. He improvised, experimenting with his voice for several minutes – it was fantastic! Aurelio is an artist who knows how to hold an audience, and knowing how to touch people is a gift.

What have you learned from him?
He has really made me want to go and play in Honduras, as soon as the political situation permits [President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military coup d’état on 28 June 2009], and then it will be his turn to introduce me to his audience!