Youssou N'Dour's World of Harmony
In His New Songs of Islam, the Senegalese Artist Puts Faith in Peace
By Alona Wartofsky
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page C01
NEW YORK -- A few years back, Senegalese music star Youssou N'Dour composed a series of songs celebrating his Islamic faith. He originally wrote the devotional music for his family and friends to listen to during Ramadan but then decided to release it as an album.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath changed his mind.
The album "started when the world was doing a little better, and I refused to issue it when the world was going very, very badly," N'Dour says, speaking through a translator in the midtown Manhattan offices of Nonesuch, his U.S. record label.
Now N'Dour believes the time is right for the world to hear the collection, titled "Egypt" for its U.S. release. "People have started to learn so many things," he says carefully. "They are starting to respect a little more diversity."
Released last month, "Egypt" has been greeted with rapturous reviews. The album was recorded in Cairo, where N'Dour collaborated with bandleader Fathy Salama, fusing Senegalese and Egyptian musical elements. N'Dour sings in Wolof, one of many languages spoken in Senegal, but translations are provided, revealing that the songs extoll Senegal's revered Sufi saints and spiritual leaders. In the liner notes, N'Dour is quoted as saying that the album "praises the tolerance of my religion."
For N'Dour, "Egypt" is not necessarily political. "Politics is something very different," he says. "It is perhaps in everything, but it's mostly about the interest of the politicians."
But N'Dour has made political statements before. In the spring of 2003, he canceled what would have been his biggest U.S. tour yet to protest the invasion of Iraq. "Even though I am conscious that I am not somebody like Bruce Springsteen in this country, it was a way of saying that I am against the war," he says now.
He suspects the decision cost him something. "Perhaps there are people who are saying this is an artist who is not serious, who had a program to do and didn't," he says. "Perhaps also if there was an economic side to it, I lost because of that."
N'Dour has since relented, and he's currently traveling through the United States on a tour that brings him to Lisner Auditorium tonight. "There came a moment that they said the war is over, is finished," he says, explaining his decision to return to the States. "Even though the war is not finished."
Seated next to a French translator who occasionally seems to be condensing his remarks, N'Dour, 44, is affable but reserved. "I always thought that in a person, inside there's another person," he says. "How to touch it, it's not the person who's supposed to tell you that."
He first came to the attention of many Westerners in the mid-'80s, when adventurous music fans discovered some of Africa's remarkable artists. A handful of the continent's many stars -- including Mali's Salif Keita, Senegal's Baaba Maal, Nigeria's King Sunny Ade and Fela Anikulapo Kuti -- were signed by U.S. labels.
N'Dour is a practitioner of the Senegalese pop style known as mbalax (the Wolof word for "rhythm"), a complex, polyrhythmic music that fuses drumming and other traditional instrumentation with electric keyboards and guitars.
He is an accomplished composer and bandleader but also an arresting vocalist with extraordinary range. In 1984, British rock star Peter Gabriel heard N'Dour perform and became a fan and advocate, helping him sign with Virgin Records. N'Dour toured with Gabriel and appeared on his single "In Your Eyes," which became an international hit. N'Dour also performed on Amnesty International's 1988 Human Rights Now! tour with such pop luminaries as Bruce Springsteen and Sting.
American music journalists excited by the possibilities of the styles they dubbed "Afropop" hailed N'Dour as an African version of Bob Marley, who had helped Jamaican reggae music reach an international audience. "It's always an honor to be compared with somebody like Bob Marley, because he's one of my heroes," says N'Dour. "At the same time, I think that maybe they thought since I was coming from an underdeveloped country and that I was beginning to be known in the rest of the world, that was the only comparison they could make."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company