YOUSSOU N'DOUR

"Egypt"

Nonesuch

"7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour"

Columbia/Legacy

It's no accident that Youssou N'Dour chose this year to explore his religious beliefs on a new album, "Egypt." With religious-tinged wars raging in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, the role of Islam in the modern world has never been more controversial. N'Dour, a Senegalese superstar with a spellbinding high tenor and a sure command of the trickiest polyrhythms, is a Muslim of the Sufi strain. In these eight original songs, he sets out to prove that Islam can inspire music of surpassing beauty and welcoming gentleness. He succeeds admirably.

To prove that his vision of Islamic music isn't limited to his West African homeland, N'Dour collaborated with Fathy Salama, the Egyptian bandleader known for turning traditional Arabic music into imaginative jazz and pop. N'Dour co-wrote the songs in the Wolof language with his harmony singer Kabou Gueye and co-produced the album with Salama in both Cairo and Dakar, Senegal.

The lyrics praise not only "Allah" but also such Senegalese luminaries as poet Amadou Bamba, religious leader Ibrahim Niasse and ascetic Ibra Fall. By combining Senegalese musicians on the kora and talking drum with Egyptian musicians on the oud, kawala (Arab flute), and rababa (two-stringed violin), the resulting sound belongs to neither land but suggests a pan-Islamic hybrid where the lush harmonies reflect the lilting flavor of N'Dour's vocals.

At the age of 20 in 1979, N'Dour took over the Star Band of Dakar, renamed it Super Etoile de Dakar and used it to pioneer the mbalax sound, an electrified mix of West African and Caribbean influences that took over Senegalese music in the '80s. He released his first worldwide album in 1989 and has been an international star ever since. The new 16-song, single-disc anthology, "7 Seconds: The Best of Youssou N'Dour," summarizes the 1992-2000 portion of his career.

In addition to such popular cuts as the title track (a duet with Neneh Cherry that was a semi-hit single), "Yo Le Le (Fulani Groove)" and "Birima," there are six tunes that have never been released in the United States, including two live performances never released anywhere. It's surprising that N'Dour's likable, English-language versions of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and the Temptations' "Don't Look Back" have never been issued here before.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Thursday at Lisner Auditorium. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Youssou N'Dour, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)