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Shifting to an African departure

August 01, 2004|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Youssou N'DOUR'S performances are caldrons of musical excitement. His blending of traditional Senegalese mbalax music with pop music textures, Western instruments and jazz-styled improvising has made him one of world music's breakout stars.

He was in typically communicative form recently at the Henry Fonda Theatre, leading his Super Etoile band through a set of tunes bursting with body-moving dance rhythms, his penetrating voice soaring through the colorful textures in a powerful call to musical enjoyment.

Appealing as it was, the set wasn't quite what some of N'Dour's listeners expected. A few weeks earlier, his latest album, "Egypt" (Nonesuch), was released. A collection of songs celebrating Senegal's Muslim culture of Sufism, it is a distinct departure from his previous work.

"It's a different band and a different concept," N'Dour, 44, said the day after his Fonda gig, his calm, youthful demeanor intensified by a penetrating gaze and a concise, to-the-point speaking manner. "This is the first time I've done anything like this -- with acoustic instruments, a pan-African thing, with Oriental sounds, West African sounds." N'Dour fans will recognize his voice, but the music moves into colorful new territory. His appeal, for decades, has been based on a global, Afro-pop style that influenced Western pop artists from Peter Gabriel to Paul Simon, placed him in a wide range of international contexts and led to his 1991 signing with Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule Musicworks record label.

With "Egypt," N'Dour shifts his focus. For starters, his usual ensemble is accompanied by the Fathy Salama Orchestra, an assemblage of strings, flutes, Egyptian wind instruments, lutes and percussion. The melodies occasionally dip into the modal foundations of Egyptian music, and the timbres and rhythms shift subtly from West Africa to the Middle East.

Surrounded by these mesmerizing musical textures, N'Dour sings, with a warm, gentle but gripping quality, songs that are tributes to Senegalese saints and teachers.

"It's about the role of religion in Senegal," said N'Dour, "about the participation of religion in our society, and about the important roles that these great teachers have played."

Beyond the orientation of the music -- which celebrates spiritualism with great verve and enthusiasm -- the songs also aim to present a different view of Islam from the narrow vision that has tended to dominate the media, especially since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet the album was begun long before that. "The album was really started in 1998," recalled N'Dour. "I have the feeling that people are waiting to hear something new from me, for me to fly in different directions. And this is the music I was thinking about at the time." "Egypt" took two years to come to fruition as a finished production. Then N'Dour, who canceled a U.S. tour in March 2003 because he opposed the then-impending war in Iraq, held the album back another year.

Despite that action, he only reluctantly describes himself as a social activist. "My mission is not 100% social or political," he says, "but sometimes I just jump to the reality of something that is happening, and I can address it fastest through the music."

But he is quick to add his own revulsion over the events of Sept. 11. "It's really difficult to see how human beings can do such things," he said. "To me, there is never a reason for one person to kill another."

"Egypt" is N'Dour's musical testimony to that belief and his quest to place the fundamentals of his spiritual beliefs in context.

"I hope that maybe people will understand more about Islam, that it's not just in one part of the world but a worldwide religion, with different aspects and different approaches," he said. "Sometimes people say to me that Islam is only an Arab religion, and I tell them, 'Oh, no. Not at all.' "

In that sense, aside from its pure musical appeal, the most extraordinary aspect of "Egypt" may be the synchronicity of its creation.

Even though the aftermath of Sept. 11 was "not what I had in mind when it was recorded," he added, "Islam needs to be explained in its different aspects. Especially now. Because a lot of people are ignorant about this religion. And we need mediums like music or movies to explain that Islam is a religion of peace -- to explain that there are extremists in every religion, but they're always in the minority, no matter what the religion."

Two more examples of the global reach of African music:



"Malagasy" (World Village)

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