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."
N'Dour proved not to be Africa's Bob Marley, and his experience with the major labels was less than satisfying. He was dropped by Virgin after his 1990 "Set" failed to sell well. In 1994, Sony released his "The Guide (Wommat)," but despite the success of "7 Seconds," a duet with Neneh Cherry that became a huge hit in Europe, he was eventually dropped from that label as well.
Perhaps unrealistically, the labels expected hit records. "They are too impatient -- they don't want to wait," he says. "I think that they didn't understand the way that you treat an artist who comes from a different culture."
While signed to the major labels, N'Dour felt pressured to incorporate American pop styles into his music. "When you work with somebody, you have to understand what this person is capable of doing and where is he coming from. . . . Then you can really know which way you can push him," he says. "Somebody who doesn't have a culture of pop or R&B music, you take him to that and you see that the result is very frustrating."
He's more comfortable now with Nonesuch, a boutique label (and subsidiary of the Warner Music Group) that released his last two albums, "Joko" and "Nothing's in Vain," in the United States.
Nonesuch Senior Vice President David Bither says he was delighted when N'Dour approached the label with "Egypt," which is a significant departure from his previous work, both in subject matter and musical setting. "We've been encouraging him to take artistic risks," says Bither.
N'Dour hopes that Westerners are gaining a better understanding of his music. "I think that the West now is giving me a lot of respect regarding what I bring to them," he says. "And that gives me the space to be very much into what I do, very much into what I am."
But maybe there are limits to that understanding. Not long ago, N'Dour told Britain's Evening Standard that he was sometimes amused watching Westerners dance to his music. "From the east and central Africa, we have a whole panoply of very complex music, especially when it comes to rhythm. Sometimes with the mbalax music that I do, they don't understand where the 'one' is, the beginning of the rhythm. . . .
"The people who have a certain image of our culture . . . sometimes when I play, I see that they do not understand that music the way we understand that music."
N'Dour was born and raised in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, where his father worked as a mechanic. His mother came from a family of griots, traditional singers and storytellers who have long served as the culture's oral historians. Youssou was their oldest child, and they lived in a teeming area known as Medina, where most homes sheltered as many as 20 people and, says N'Dour, "you would discover things little by little by yourself in the neighborhood."
He started performing when he was 12, singing at male circumcision festivities and at other parties. Still, he was surprised when people praised his voice. "I didn't have much confidence in myself," he recalls. "I even thought that the things that people were telling me were exaggerated."
Overcoming his insecurities and defying his father's wishes, N'Dour pursued a career in music. By the time he was in his teens, he and his friends were performing outside clubs that they couldn't get into. Soon he joined the city's top band, but within a couple of years he left to create his own ensemble, which he dubbed Le Super Etoile de Dakar. He was already a top star by the time he was 21. Soon after, he made his first appearance in Europe, traveling to Paris for a show presented by an association of Senegalese taxi drivers.
His profile may rise and fall in the rest of the world, but at home, N'Dour is Senegal's superstar. "Everything that happens in the first pages of the newspaper has to do with me," he says matter-of-factly.
He owns a record label, Jololi, named after the bells traditionally placed on a horse's neck so that people can hear the animal approaching. "After I was becoming known, I felt a duty that with my possibilities and with my experience, to give a chance to other artists who were not as well known," he says. "In the local area, the label is working very well. But up to now, it doesn't have any visibility in the international scene."
N'Dour regularly releases his own music for the local market and performs frequently at a Dakar nightclub he owns. He also owns a radio station, a recording studio and a cassette factory. He presides over charitable foundations and recently launched a project to bring Internet service to Senegal's villages.
That's a lot of accomplishment for any one person, but N'Dour has more plans. He's about to revive an Internet project on Senegal's culture so that it can be easily appreciated by the rest of the world. And next year, he'll return to the States to tour with the band that helped him record "Egypt."
For now, he's hoping the album will teach the international community that there are many sides of Islam. "The Muslim religion is not a history and a religion only for the Arabs," he says. "My music is the noise of peace, and I am Muslim. And I think that peace is tolerance, is recognizing diversity, and is very important."
He has a feeling that there will be much more for him to do. "I received many honors, many things," he says. "If my name and my music can contribute to fair and just causes, I will be always there."