SENEGAL'S Youssou N'Dour is the Stevie Wonder of West Africa: a gifted singer whose tenor voice is at once sweet and strong, a master melodicist whose catchy tunes are always linked to just as catchy dance rhythms and an incurable sentimentalist in both his music and his lyrics, whether the subject is politics or romance.
N'Dour's last album, "The Lion," betrayed the art-rock influence of his British advocate, Peter Gabriel; N'Dour's new album, "Set," was recorded live in a Paris studio with his road band, the Super Etoile de Dakar, and comes closer to the dance-inciting excitment of his hometown concerts.
Most of the new songs were co-written by N'Dour and his bandleader, keyboardist Habib Faye, and they emphasize the rippling pulse of West African dance jams. Assane Thiam adds the percolating sound of the Senegalese talking drum, which N'Dour successfully mimics with his soft, rounded phrasing. N'Dour makes occasional, tentative forays into phonetic English, but mostly he sticks to his more comfortable native tongue, Wolof.
The English translations in the album booklet reveal that many of the songs concern the struggle of the younger, urbanized generation of Africans to find a place between the rural traditions of their parents and the international culture that confronts them every day. That struggle is also reflected in the music as N'Dour tries to retain his specific Senegalese identity in his percussion even as he addresses a world-wide audience with synthesizers. Sometimes he stumbles (as on the "Eleanor Rigby"-style string arrangement on "Xale"), but more often than not he succeeds, creating exuberant, universal love songs like "Fenene" and "Ay Chona La."
YOUSSOU N'DOUR -- "Set" (Virgin). Appearing with Hugh Masekela Saturday at Constitution Hall.