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Youssou N'Dour and African Islam

Rino Breebaart

The broad tar-brushing of Islam has meant westerners have generally lost sight of the varieties and subtle differences of the many cultures to be found within Islam. In these times especially, Youssou N'Dour's music needs to be heard.

It's not often realised how September 11 has affected the Muslim world, especially the Muslim world outside the Middle East. Culturally speaking — and it's in culture and art that social changes are most subtly and eloquently expressed — not much of Islamic-minded or Arab language music registers on the Western charts of popularity and significance. Treated as a symptom of larger issues, this cultural absence filled could go a long way toward repairing the damage and maligned insinuation Islamic culture has undergone since 2001 and the subsequent mythical war on terror.

What I mean is that like the other casualties of war (innocent life, truth, and perspective) along with the broad tar-brushing of Islam, has meant westerners have generally lost sight of the varieties and subtle differences of the many cultures to be found within Islam. We've lost sight of the respect these differences are due. We tend to perceive only the pointed peaks of partial media representation in the news. For example, think of the recent paranoid debacle forced onto Yusef Islam. Events like Islam's barring from entering the US help bend and skew the perception and reception of Muslim artists in the West (and yes, "The West" is an awkward and general definition here). To follow this argument in marketing terms, Arab or Islamic music is too much of a "niche" culture, an exotic "other" that must not remain isolated, as such marginalization limits our understanding and enjoyment of the broader world.

There have, of course been, exceptions to this trend of limiting Islamic music in the west: crossover renegades like the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who recorded extensively for the Real World and penultimately the Def American labels) and the Algerian Raï singer Khaled both consistently popular on the European continent and with that broad fanbase of taste called "world" music.

OK, so much for a contextual preamble. For his devotional record Egypt, Youssou N'Dour forced himself to wait several years before releasing it. A record devoted to the various sages and saints of Sufism popular in his native Senegal, which is largely Muslim, and scored with the dramatic strains of Egyptian music, it was conceived and written in 1998 but only released earlier this year. An album originally slated for local release only, but now being promoted internationally on tour, N'Dour says he deliberately delayed releasing it because its sophisticated and devotional nature was at odds with the mood and perception of Islam over the last three years. This does not mean he was displaying marketing savvy, but rather, he was acting in deference to the positivity and spiritual subject of Islamic music. N'Dour did not want his music tarred with the brush of politics.

All this he explained simply and gently between songs as he performed them live with the Fathy Salama orchestra several weeks ago at Dublin's Vicar Street. His explanation gives one an indication of how careful and sensitive an African Muslim performer must be about performing his music in the West. It's sad that only the shapeless mass of "world" music fans appreciate and tune in to this kind of humane frequency and its spiritual import. Because emotionally speaking, the communication and affect Youssou projects from the stage is absolutely involving, convincing and direct. He is near universal in humanity. His music is as relevant for us as for his homeland community; which isn't merely attesting to the power of Islamic devotional music per se, but of the potential humanising power of all music. It's a reminder of why we listen to diverse music at all, beyond such eclectic-generalisations like "world".

A superstar in his native Senegal, N'Dour has been a performer most of his life, and onstage his voice and movement reveal an innate naturalism and at-homeness with the music. (Many might remember his distinctive higher-range voice from the single "7 Seconds" with Neneh Cherry). Musically, vocally, as a frontman for a band totalling 20 odd members, he is also that rare performer who isn't battling for supremacy or the constant spotlight; his voice is distinctive and focused and yet always part of the team. When he's momentarily off stage, his absence isn't noticeable. Thus, it's an evenness of performance not fully absorbed until remembered afterwards as musical unity, a musical coherence. N'Dour imparts this sense of social harmony through method as well as the emotion of the songs.

There's also the physical harmony and crossover represented by the band itself: a full Egyptian string ensemble and a small African rhythm and melody unit. I had never thought that African-Senegalese and Arabic-Egyptian music could blend together so well but they do, like a meeting of long-lost family relations; never once seeming like a deliberate fusion or musical experiment. There's the dramatic Egyptian sway and lilt of the Arab world, at times explicitly reminiscent of Om Kalsoum, and yet there's also the rooted, earth-connection of the Senegalese rhythms. The forms share a compatibility as subtle as it is powerful, a music addressing both mind and body; a fundamentally healthy-sounding and feeling music. A music trading virtuosities from two distinct cultures: the gifted and modest oud player (that's an Arab guitar) matched on the African side by the kora, a tall, bulbous stringed instrument with staggering eloquence. All these components are unified by a gifted singer, by a celebration of African Islam, and the theme of peaceful brotherhood.

I guess it's such accessible feeling and spiritual vibes that makes this music popular with world music fans. "World" is a musical categorisation that often radically generalises the particularities of the thousand folk cultures existent today, and hence should be avoided at all cost if it didn't typify so well the myriad types of environmentalists, dreadlocked backpackers, and middle-ages New Age seekers (thrice divorced but still seeking salvation) who constitute the mass of world-culture fandom and the audience that night. They had me worried a little, these lumpen allsorts. Not because I question their sincerity and sensitivity, but because such healthy music should appeal to the widest spectrum of people.

Which, should such an influence be deliberately courted (one thinks of Bono on the world stage), would again involve some level of politicisation. It would make the music more reactionary and easy to malign in our current climate, with all the attendant risks to the performer as espoused by the life of Fela Kuti or the savaging of Yusef Islam. The strange contradiction then, is that a spiritual music like that of Youssou N'Dour has to stay small and subtle, and play only to a "world" audience in order to do its best work — to work its way into people's hearts and feet.

And as a small footnote to the slowly-growing multicultural awareness of Ireland, by some managerial or booking oversight, the Ramadan-observing band only came to realise on the night that they were playing a licensed venue. The promoter came out and kindly asked for mutual respect and 20 minutes within which patrons could finish their drinks. Now, considering the average Irish patron brings in about two pints from the bar to their seats, this was no small feat. But this night, it succeeded. Such is the aura of respect and mutual feeling imparted by the audience to Youssou and the band.

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