I'm Not a Politician 

On Egypt, Youssou N'Dour settles for being one of African folk music's brightest lights.

Music brings people together," Youssou N'Dour explains. "A song can transmit a message of peace and understanding faster than the passage in a book."

The world music icon is explaining the inspiration behind his new album, Egypt, a collaboration with Egyptian jazz pianist Fathy Salama and Beugue Fallou's traditional Senegalese percussion ensemble. The album, which N'Dour characterizes as a hymn to the Senegalese style of Islam, works its magic on many levels -- musical, verbal, and spiritual. The lyrics extol the virtues of peace and harmony between nations and people, while N'Dour's always-expressive vocal gymnastics take wing and dance effortlessly through the air, suspended between the implied heaven of Salama's soaring Egyptian-style string charts and the earthly groove of Fallou's percussion. But it's the subtle accents -- plucked strings that dance beneath the vocals on "Allah," the minimal drum/balafon/flute pulse that drives "Tijaniyya," the understated female backing vocals and serpentine oud fills on "Touba Daru Salaam" -- that create a soulful core that continually unfolds with repeated listenings.

You might assume that songs singing the praises of Allah and Islam are a reaction to the anti-Arab sentiment that swept the world after 9/11, but N'Dour says he's been working on this project for a long time: Egypt "has no political message," he explains. "I started working on these songs in 2000, long before 9/11, and while I'm Muslim, I'm not someone who knows the Koran. I practice the normal things, praying and Ramadan, but I'm not an imam."

Instead, "I was mostly interested in exploring the differences between Sufi music in West Africa and North Africa," he continues. "I remember when I was ten years old, my father played me the music of Oum Kalsoum [the Egyptian singer who was the reigning Arab diva for almost fifty years], but mostly I know Arab music from Khaled and Cheb Mami, so when I started this project, I collaborated with Fathy Salama."

Pianist Salama is known throughout the Arab continuum and Europe for his band Sharkiat, a group that combines jazz, Arab modalities, European classical music, and the funk and blues of black America. He has worked with Sun Ra and Hal Galper, and is currently involved with the new generation of electronic musicians in Paris, aiming to create traditional Egyptian music with a modern edge.

"When I started this project, I talked to people who know Egyptian music better than me, and they told me about Fathy Salama," N'Dour explains. "I listen to some of his albums, and he mixes a lot of different textures in his music. I contacted him, and he knew my music and other West African roots music, so I invited him to Dakar. He was involved from the first day. Like me, his temperament is to reach out to different sounds and experiment. We did the basic tracks in Senegal, and he took the tracks back to Cairo to record the string orchestra. Then he came back to Dakar and we added more traditional instruments. From the first meeting, from the first note we played, he knew what we were looking for. The collaboration was really easy."

N'Dour was especially interested in finding ways for African drums to interact with the sound of a string orchestra. "My band [Super Etoile de Dakar] has a lot of experience, but the vibe is based on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards," he says. "For this music, I was thinking in terms of strings and percussion. That's why I worked with Salama and Beugue Fallou. I was impressed with Fallou's Senegalese groove. His background is traditional music, but he finds ways to make traditional music valid to today's generation. In Senegal and Africa in general, we have both traditional and modern music. [Folk] and popular music are not separated the way it is [in the West]. In Africa, there is a cultural element that connects the music of the present to our traditions. We consume music in a more natural way in Africa, without the marketing decisions. That's why I started my own label in Senegal. If we perform a new song and the response is good, we record it and get it out on the streets in a few days."

The songs on Egypt examine many aspects of the African Islamic experience, which is different from and more secular than the Islam practiced in North Africa and the Middle East. It also gives listeners a capsule history of Senegal's Islamic past. There are songs about local heroes Amadou Bamba and Cheikh Ibrahima Fall, as well as the holy city of Touba, the site of the holiest mosque in West Africa, which is one of the region's most beautiful architectural marvels.

But at this point, is anyone still listening? The world music market has taken a huge hit recently, partly because of the resurrection of xenophobia spawned by 9/11, and partly because of the implosion of the record business via downloading and corporate consolidation. Thankfully, N'Dour and his band haven't been adversely affected by these trends, and he continues to tour the States regularly. "The only difference I see is that I see more Africans now," he says. "There are more Africans living in the US today, and they're more involved in the audience. But as I said, I'm not a politician. The only important thing is keeping the passion in the music. Art has endless possibilities, and music has allowed many people without hope or power to express themselves and communicate with the world."


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