Reaching Mecca

Youssou N'Dour's Egypt praises the saints and passes the musical ammunition.

Against the evidence on my stereo, I must confess some initial skepticism of Youssou N'Dour's "Muslim album." In its timing and packaging, with liner notes that quote the Senegalese singer saying his new CD "praises the tolerance of my religion," Egypt (Nonesuch) appears to be a response to the conflict of our times, the one you and I began noticing on Sept. 11, 2001. Last month, the Village Voice's senior music critic, Robert Christgau, rhapsodized about the album's bubbly synthesis of Arabic and West African styles in the same breath as he endorsed N'Dour's 2003 protest of the Iraq war.

But that conflation of purpose is exactly the kind of thing N'Dour is careful to avoid. Idealistic but diplomatic, he embarked on the project well before 9/11, recording with Egyptian composer Fathy Salama in Cairo and Dakar. Then he shelved the results for years to avoid the appearance of commenting on the mass murders. Now, instead of subtly asking Americans to avert their gaze from jihad, N'Dour subtly asks would-be jihadists (and others) to look squarely at the Islam they would incinerate. Egypt is about the cosmopolitan Sufism of N'Dour's homeland, a set of devotional songs sung mostly in Wolof, Senegal's nationalist lingua franca, with due shout-outs to the founders of various Sufi brotherhoods. But when N'Dour combines his tender melodies with the agile strings and cascading percussion of Salama's orchestra, he imbues his Muslim gospel album with wider, deeper meaning.

For one thing, he's preaching pluralism to Senegal. When the patriot pays catchy tribute to the Mouride Mecca of "Touba—Daru Salaam" ("Tuba, Land of Peace"), he makes special mention of a despised population. "Disciples are also in Casamance," he sings, referring to the territory known for its losing war of secession. "All are welcome." (That's the English translation, I should say.)

You don't have to know Sheik Ahmadou Bamba (the Sufi saint revered in that song) from "La Bamba" to get the sentiment, of course, or to love the music. Like most N'Dour fans, I came across that voice via a famous duet with Peter Gabriel on "In Your Eyes," and spent years searching for parallels. (He sounds like Desmond Dekker taking Sam Cooke to school, if such a thing were possible.) One night spent with N'Dour's group Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who perform at the Paramount Theatre on Friday, and you'll come away feeling you've seen a great bandleader in his prime. (N'Dour is barely in his mid-40s.)

But the world-class entertainer's raw talent mingles with something more rare—a character capable of uncommon sweetness and empathy. His bold new music harnesses his crier's power for almost dainty, spacious phrasing. You feel N'Dour is talking to you with every line, even when he's addressing some dead holy man. That's one reason Egypt isn't a career version of the George Harrison song you always skip on Sgt. Pepper's.

N'Dour is closer in spirit to Ray Charles, and this album is his Modern Sounds in Islamic Music. Somewhere between the Cairo that produced Edward W. Said and the Dakar that produced Orchestra Baobab, a musician's wisdom has taken hold: "The West" and "Islam" are indistinguishable as separate entities, never mind "clashing" ones. And in a United States widowed by Malcolm X, where Islam is our fastest growing religion, this truth has the power of revelation. N'Dour is preaching to us, all right—quite apart from his opinions on American foreign policy. For anti-secularists everywhere, he rocks a Muslim world spinning out of their control, one that will send 9/11 down in history as a desperate blow in a losing war.

Youssou N'Dour plays the Paramount Theatre at 8 p.m. Fri., July 23. $25.

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