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Youssou N’Dour breaks musical barriers

Grace Myers | Tuesday, November 8, 2005

In Sunday’s performance, Youssou N’Dour showed the Notre Dame community why he is considered the “voice of Africa.”

The New York Times recently described his voice as “an arresting tenor, a supple weapon deployed with prophetic authority.” N’Dour, having just returned from touring in Europe, performed selections from his newest, Grammy Award-winning album, “Egypt.” The music and concert was an exploration and celebration of N’Dour’s Sufi (Muslim mystical) culture.

N’Dour is an internationally-renowned musician, composer, bandleader, vocalist and producer. He is highly esteemed for his musical intelligence and ability to cross the stylistic boundaries of culture and time. Robert Christgau of the “Village Voice,” dean of American rock critics, calls N’Dour “the one African moving inexorably toward the world-pop fusion everyone else merely theorizes about.”

Undeniably, he is an icon of world music. N’Dour fuses the different styles of his Senegalese homeland, including the traditional, modern and Sufi Muslim chants. He also incorporates many different sounds from all over the world, including other areas of Africa, Cuba, Western hip hop, jazz, soul and pop.

N’Dour’s album “Egypt” has an unexpected defined focus. Instead of a global fusion of sounds, N’Dour deals only with Eastern sounds, specifically Senegalese melodic and harmonic elements and Arab orchestral sounds. N’Dour’s powerful vocal performance was accompanied by Fathy Salama’s Cairo Orchestra. Together, the music of “Egypt” portrays the unity of the Muslim world and the beauty found within the religion.

The orchestra was incredibly talented, especially the percussion section. There were several individual instrumental solos, which demonstrated the various sounds of that particular instrument. The orchestra also played chants by having only one instrument perform it, then adding on other instruments playing the same chant in a slightly different style.

Salama desires to bridge the link between traditional and modern music from the Orient. He has worked towards this with his Cairo Orchestra, and has succeeded through their collaboration with N’Dour on this album.

N’Dour’s performance portrayed the beauty of Islam, something that most Westerners have never had the chance to witness outside of political and racial agendas. In this manner, N’Dour gave the Notre Dame community, along with the rest of the Western world, the gift of experiencing another part of the world and another religion.

The Grammy N’Dour received for this album suggests that it might be the forerunning work of the West’s appreciation for the musical talents and diversity of the Muslim world. It was a celebration of the diversity and unity of his faith.

N’Dour’s music transcends the boundaries of the Islamic world, uniting the history and present of North and western Africa, the main stations of Sufi thought. N’Dour traces the “Senegalese way” of Islam through the Sufi movements in the heart of the Arab world to the different parts of the country.

“‘Egypt’ is an album which praises the tolerance of my religion, which has been badly misused by a certain ideology,” N’Dour stated to the BBC and Al-Jazeera in an interview. “At a time when there is a debate on Islam, the world needs to know how people are taking over this religion. Our religion has nothing to do with the violence, with terrorism,” N’Dour’s success with this album and performances is tribute not only to his musical abilities but as an example of the world’s desire to understand the Muslim world.

N’Dour is an experienced performer. He was obviously comfortable on stage and more importantly, with the music he was sharing. When he was not singing, he danced around, often coming right up to the edge of the stage, inviting the audience to dance along. He would also joke around with members of the orchestra.

It was a very personable performance, despite the less-familiar nature of the music. His voice was incredible, possessing a rare power and wide range. The music was incredibly powerful and moving, an unforgettable experience.