Not your father's Ramadan

Sengalese superstar Youssou N'Dour, who protested the Iraq war, talks about the beauty of Africa, Sufism and his fight against fundamentalism.

Published October 26, 2005 11:00AM (EDT)

On Sunday evening at New York's Carnegie Hall, Youssou N'Dour was caught between an elderly Senegalese griot and an unhappy soundman. Seems the xalam, a five-stringed Senegalese folk lute, wasn't easy to mike. The opening concert of his four-night series just hours away, N'Dour nonetheless radiated calm.

N'Dour -- the most popular singer in Africa and the archetypal world-music star -- is used to reconciling antiquity with modernity. Besides, he's negotiated trickier divides.

In March 2003, on the eve of the most ambitious American tour of his career, N'Dour simply canceled. "As a matter of conscience," he wrote in a press statement, "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."

N'Dour's sinewy tenor, dazzling vocal melismata, and urgent, engaging lyrics (mostly concerned with social responsibility and cultural memory) are the face of mbalax (um-balak), the popular Senegalese music that blends centuries-old praise-singing and percussion with Afro-Cuban arrangements and guitar-based Western pop. His band, the Super Étoile, has held sway over Senegalese fans since its formation in 1979. He's since captured the ear of a worldwide audience, first with his singing on Peter Gabriel's hit "In Your Eyes," then through a series of wide-ranging, acclaimed albums for American labels.

N'Dour's music is the perfect amalgam of old and new, indigenous and foreign. His music's instrumentation ranges from talking drum (a staple of Senegalese music) to drum loops and synthesizers. His lyrics, sung mostly in his native Wolof, concern basic things -- the need for hard work, respect for women, love of God and of fellow man -- as well as more complicated issues -- political struggles over electrical service in Dakar, or the need to remain connected to one's home. 1990's "Set" (which means "clean" or "pure" in Wolof) was a motivating cry for young Senegalese to clean up their environment and to demand "transparency" in politics and business.

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, N'Dour performs the music of "Egypt," a dazzling CD that won a Grammy Award last year and is his most ambitious work to date: original songs about Senegalese Sufi tradition, performed with an Egyptian orchestra accented by Senegalese vocals and percussion. (N'Dour brings this music to seven more American cities through Nov. 13.) The orchestral setting coaxes his voice into heightened tenderness, but his messages are pointed as ever. Senegalese Islam is largely Sufi: "These songs celebrate the caliphs, saints and sages of my faith," N'Dour told me, "to praise the tolerance of my often misunderstood religion."

"Who better than Muslim artists to assume a kind of duty now," he wrote in a Carnegie program book, "to protect Islam, and all the beautiful cultures of Islam, from its slanderers at both poles of the malicious, ignorant, ideologically inane morass of speech which passes for a 'dialogue of religions' in these challenging times?"

With Carnegie staffers, three publicists, and an independent film crew buzzing around N'Dour, stealing time to speak at a nearby hotel suite proved a challenge. But once seated, N'Dour, who spoke mostly in French through a translator, was eager to reflect on his new music and his return to the United States.

Looking back, are you glad you canceled your tour when you did?

If I had it to do again, I would do it again. I didn't make the decision simply because there was a war mounting against a Muslim country. I did it because the war that was mounting was unjust. I could not bring the joy that I bring to my audiences in that context and in that environment. There were a lot of violent events that took place here in New York before this war, but I think the bringing on of the war was an attempt to weaken the United Nations.

Now, do you arrive with any ambivalence?

No, I don't have a problem. Even though the conflict is still going on in Iraq, I think the U.S. is a great country with a lot of great people. And now, I know a lot of people who say now that we may have been right -- that it was not right for the United States to invade Iraq. I know that I'm not Bruce Springsteen. But it was a symbolic statement that I wanted to make.

Is the music of your "Egypt" CD an attempt to counter the face of Islamic fundamentalism?

I don't dwell on the effect of the music in terms of politics or about how people are going to perceive this tour. I am not overly interested in that. It is music meant to be beautiful and fun and it has pan-African content. It's a great musical opportunity. It's not as if I am a lawyer for any cause.

But don't you find the messages of Muslim fundamentalists who command headlines at odds with your message in "Egypt"?

I think that in all religions you find fundamentalism and, for me, it's always a minority -- even if they are in the limelight now, getting the attention of the world. Every religion has its extremists. I think the majority of Muslim people are of the same frame of mind as I am.

Yes, but not the majority of those in power...

Those who are in power don't always or even usually speak for the majority, and we need to remember that. This may be as true in your country as in the Middle East.

This album is surrounded by a message, it contains a strong message, but I did not create this message. It is the message of my faith, shared by many. It is something that some people are ignorant about, and I am trying to make those people aware. Some may have forgotten it and I am trying to remind them.

How did the music of "Egypt" come about?

It was a personal thing, really -- just for me and those close to me. During the Ramadan, we have prayers, and every night we talk about our religion, Islam. And one day, I had the idea to play while we talked about it. And that idea brought back memories of how, when I was 10 years old, my father used to play recordings of Um Kulthum [the beloved Egyptian singer]. The two ideas began to merge for me in my mind, and then I talked to someone about finding Egyptian Arabic musicians to help me with this music. He mentioned Fathy Salama, who did the orchestral arrangements.

I always had some conflict over how to sing praises of a religious nature. I always had in mind to find a different form for this kind of praise singing. I wanted to sing about all the leaders of the brotherhoods. We have six famous brotherhoods, and I wanted to describe them all. I talked about the leaders, their stories, their families, and how they participated in the social development of Senegal.

Is there something distinct about the Senegalese experience of Islam? How does it differ from Islam in the Middle East?

The promotion of Islam in Africa may have begun with spokesmen from the Arab world, but in Senegal we have our own guides who have created their own turuq [Arabic for "ways" or "pathways"].

But I think that Sufism fits all over the world. The concept is not anything that fits standard Western ideas -- it's always related to culture, to music, to religion. It is a dominant religion in Senegal. The music that it creates calls into question the idea that the Muslim religion is not only a matter of Arabs or that it does not belong only to the Arabs. In the West, you have always associated the Islamic faith 100 percent with Arab culture. This in itself is a fundamentalist attitude and it is mistaken.

Does the act of working with Egyptian musicians in a largely Arabic musical style signify outreach on your part?

I'm not playing with Egyptian musicians to attain an Arab public. There's content, there's subject matter that's common to us. And this record is a contribution to that commonality, an affirmation of that commonality.

If you wish to correct the view in the West of Islam, are you also talking about our images of Senegal, or all of Africa?

I think people should know more of Africa in terms of its joie de vivre, its feeling for life. In spite of the images that one knows about Africa -- the economic poverty, the corruption -- there's a joy to living and a happiness in community, living together, in community life, which may be missing here in America. And I think America can learn from that. It's a face of Africa that is not commonly shown in the news media, and if it were, I think Americans could learn a lot.

Considering the prevalent image Westerners have of African governments as corrupt, I wonder how you see the current American political environment?

The corruption, the corrupted and the corrupters are the same thing. Sometimes the money that is tied to the corruption process in Africa ends up here, you know. I think America is a great country that should have in its head a conscience and a responsibility that is equal to its achievements. I like the various movements that I see here in America. People here don't leave action to the government. Action is not the exclusive province of the government. I like that idea very much.

This quality of Africans I've mentioned, to be happy in spite of trouble, despite challenge, is a force for development -- and it could very well make Africa develop very rapidly in a way that people may not expect.

The question of modernization is central to disturbances in the Middle East and in Africa. Everyone is after modernization, no matter where they come from. But you have to be careful about it, and more importantly, you have to have sense about it. A comedian told me a story recently: He was in a rich Arab country and there were all these air conditioners in one spot. He looked up and there was no ceiling. There was air conditioning, but no roof.

The four-night series you curated for Carnegie Hall spans ancient musical styles to the freshest Senegalese pop. Is it fair to say that all of your music has at its core the tension between tradition and modernity?

My music is like a spinning ball. It can turn in one direction, and then it comes back to origins. And I think I am in a moment in my musical life where I'm feeling more sure of myself, and I think I've found a mix that suits me and makes me feel confident. I feel free of the expectations that people had of me, the symbol that perhaps I had become earlier in my career.

The symbol that I'd become created a tension between people interested in my music who favored a modern approach and people who favored a traditional or conservative approach, and between these two camps there was a lot of fighting. And now I think I've reached the point in time where the fighting is less important to me, less important to anyone, and people are more apt to sense the music on its own terms. Something that comes back to me is the experience of Miles Davis, who at a point in time was free to express himself without the fetters of people wanting one particular Miles or another. And I don't know why, but somehow I sense that I'm in the same place that he might have been.

What does the griot mean in modern-day terms?

We're always tempted by the weight of the present. But we need to think about history too. When we step outside of the day-to-day, that's when we are able to share the most. Sometimes I am content to be immersed in the present moment. But not too much of the time. The griot is a bridge. If you want to go to Senegal the griot can take you there -- through music, through dance, by telling stories.

Is there a special meaning or poignancy to performing this music, which was conceived during one Ramadan, in the U.S. during another Ramadan [which runs through Nov. 3]?

It's very interesting: There was a big debate on Senegalese radio, with professors, Islamic leaders, musicians and rappers about making music and performing during Ramadan. The moderator was an Islamic studies specialist, and he asked, "Why during Ramadan is there no music? If you're stopping your music during Ramadan, then aren't you saying that the music is not acceptable for the religion?" This was a very important point for me.

I'm sorry, but I don't remember reading anywhere that you can't play music after sundown during Ramadan. People like me have decided to ask ourselves, "Why?" Maybe we'll do something different. Maybe it is time to do some things differently.

By Larry Blumenfeld

Larry Blumenfeld writes regularly about jazz and culture for the Wall Street Journal, and at His Salon piece, “Band on the Run in New Orleans” was included in “Best Music Writing, 2008.” He will moderate a discussion, “Ten Years After: The State of New Orleans Music and Culture,” on Aug. 24 at Basin St. Station, in New Orleans. (The panel will be live-streamed by WWOZ-FM.)

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Egyptian Protests Islam Middle East Music Ramadan Religion