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Facing Mecca

Longstanding cosmopolitan Youssou N'Dour tells the world about his embattled faith

Youssou N'Dour's dignified, devotional Egypt is his boldest album since he formed Etoile de Dakar 25 years ago. Its sacral chants and Cairo strings are further from the beatwise declamations of the mbalax he invented than the rock respectability he pursued under the auspices of Amnesty International in the late '80s and early '90s. In a world where "world music" still signifies indigenous styles redecorated to entice Euro-American buyers, Egypt is designed to tell us that there are more ways to recontextualize a tama drum than are programmed into Jean-Philippe Rykiel's philosophy.

N'Dour is a longstanding cosmopolitan. His American star has only risen since he took his act to the tastemongers at Nonesuch. But he is also a Muslim, and, thanks to Bush-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz Inc., determined not to let anyone forget it. So on March 7, 2003, scheduled to undertake the most extensive and expansive American tour of his life, N'Dour did a startling thing: he canceled. In a remarkably nuanced statement for a musician (see "Responsibility", below), he explained that he could not appear to sanction Washington's impending attack on Iraq.

The idealism of N'Dour's gesture plus the subtlety of his analysis established him as a rock star in a grand and endangered tradition--the gravity with which he throws his weight around is more Bono or Springsteen than Dixie Chicks or Beastie Boys. Granted, his act of conscience was directed primarily at his African fan base, which he tends prudently and loyally. He knows he's marginal here, knows his American audience was already convinced that attacking Iraq was a terrible idea. But the cancellation brought home our structural complicity in a war we failed to stop. And it showed us just how broad a wedge our rulers were driving between true American democracy and Islam's embattled humanists, without whom crusade-vs.-jihad will turn into a geopolitical nightmare capable of wrecking the rest of our lives.

His convictions lived up to, N'Dour visited briefly last fall and will return in a few weeks. Don't miss the chance to be transported by his latest Great African Ball marathon, set for Roseland July 9. But Egypt leaves no doubt that he's traveling on his own terms. Billed as an acoustic respite from the hard-driving mbalax highlights of 2000's Joko (The Link), Nonesuch's 2002 Nothing's in Vain (Coono Du Réér) was a masterful piece of international easy listening, a savvier crossover than the likes of Set and The Lion--mellow and melodic, English moralism and French chanson balancing off tama bursts and danceable homiletics. The new record is even quieter. But its sound is Egyptian, and hence a lot stranger.

Lyrics are in Wolof, the gutturals of which feel quasi-Arabic in this context, and the melodies have Senegalese contours; there's kora, Sahel percussion, Dakar backup singing male and female. But Egypt's band is the Fathy Salama Orchestra, inadequately described by the booklet as "traditional musicians." In fact Salama claims intimacy with forefathers from Bartok to Barry Harris, and for these purposes simulates the semi-classical Cairo Pops sound of Middle Eastern hegemony with an ensemble long on folk-identified instruments like oud and oblique flute. If Um Kulthum has always sounded weird to you, so will this, and N'Dour doesn't want you if that settles the matter. But compared to Kulthum's, Salama's strings are lighter in color, touch, and pitch. So suspend your disinclination a little and the weirdness turns into something else. From the flute solo of "Allah" to the oud break of "Cheikh Ibra Fall," from a rubato intro fit for Gordon MacRae to belly-dance beats fit for a marabout, this fusion is smarter, lovelier, and more seductive than anything N'Dour conceived to impress Peter Gabriel. And the singing--from one of those artists whose voice, like Aretha Franklin's or George Jones's, comes to many listeners as a musical sufficiency--is captivating in its sweetness, precision, and delicacy even when you don't follow the translation-transliteration. N'Dour is perfectly capable of rocking rough. Here he's all about caring.

About what, you wonder? He's so glad you asked. Except for the finale, about the seat of N'Dour's Mouridist sect (Touba, the fastest-growing city in West Africa), all the songs extol Sufi teachers. Senegalese Islam is largely Sufi. Islam being anything but monolithic, and Sufism being highly individualistic, that doesn't mean Sufi like ecstatic Pakistani qawwali mystic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or like calm Turkish musical healer Oruj Guvenc, or like the fierce Chechen Muridists, or like the secularizing Afghan Naqshbandis. Senegalese Sufism divides into the seminal Qadiriya, state-building Tijani, and N'Dour's Mouridists, whose work-worshipping mercantile ethic, Calvinist in a highly un-Swiss way, dominates Senegalese politics and émigré communities like New York's. Opposing animism, Sufism is a modernizing force. But like most sub-Saharan Islam, it's also very non-Arab. So for N'Dour, who for 20 years has been building bridges to Europe and America, to go to Egypt to record these pointedly pan-Sufi lyrics--in addition to praising the two Mouridist founders, he devotes songs to Qadiriya history, a Tijani anti-colonialist, a Tijani pan-Africanist, and an eccentric messianic brotherhood--is to remind his Western friends, and enemies, that in the crucial matter of faith he is not "Western," not even a little bit.

Deprived of their insistent rhymes, the translations' generalities don't always catch and hold, although the auxiliary material on the Nonesuch website shores them up. Nevertheless, Egypt is more than just beautiful--it's a persuasive political act. One reason the rock star whose fame matters has become a rarity is that the rock star whose music matters has too. N'Dour doesn't have this problem. Forget Bono--he has his eye on Bob Marley, and he may yet do it better.

Why N'Dour refused to tour America in the spring of 2003


"It is my strong conviction that the responsibility for disarming Iraq should rest with the United Nations. As a matter of conscience I question the United States government's apparent intention to commence war in Iraq. I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world--rightly or wrongly--as support for this policy, and that, as a consequence, it is inappropriate to perform in the US at this juncture.

"I understand that there are many in the US who do not support the idea of their government initiating war in Iraq at this time, and I offer my greatest respect to them. I also regret the difficulties this causes those who were to present my concerts in North America and those who were looking forward to seeing me and my band. This tour was over a year and a half in the planning and was the greatest commitment I had ever made to performing in the US.

"It is my fervent wish to return to the US in better times. But I find it impossible to imagine playing concerts in America when such grave issues are confronting all the peoples of the world."

Village Voice, June 8, 2004