Songs of Praise to the Brotherhood

With "Egypt", Youssou N'Dour has recorded a deeply religious album. But this is nothing out of the ordinary, because, in West Africa, the relationship between pop music and Islam is quite close. By Max Annas and Dorothee Plass

With "Egypt", Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour has recorded an acoustic and deeply religious album. For his audience at home, this is nothing out of the ordinary. After all, in West Africa, the relationship between pop music and Islam is much closer than it is in other parts of the world. By Max Annas and Dorothee Plass

photo: AP
Youssou N'Dur, according to the New York Times "one of the world's greatest singers"

​​Senegal and Egypt are located at opposite ends of the vast Sahara Desert, and at first glance, they don't seem to have very much in common. Nevertheless, Senegal's most important 20th century intellectual, the historian Cheikh Anta Diop, repeatedly described Egypt as the cradle of African – and worldwide – civilization, thus establishing a special reputation for the land of the Pharaohs in Senegal as well. He also rejected the distinction between countries north and south of the Sahara.

Youssou N'Dour, who the New York Times recently referred to as "one of the world's greatest singers", takes the same position: "I think of Africa as a region that includes the Maghreb. Seen from this point of view, I simply wanted to make a Pan-African album."

Pan-Africanism had become a cheap cliché

Pan-Africanism? The old catch-phrase, which was once an anti-imperialistic concept opposing the power of the North, had deteriorated into a cheap cliché in the day-to-day politics of the last several decades.

Most recently, the word was even on the lips of Muammar al-Gaddafi, who used it in campaigning for Libya as the seat of the African Union Parliament. And now Youssou N'Dour?

In recent years, many of Africa's major pop stars have attempted to make acoustically flavored albums. Salif Keita set the trend two years ago with his album, "Moffou", and Kasse Mady followed his lead. His former Rail bandmate, Mory Kante, will soon do the same.

Now, with his new album, "Egypt" Youssou N'Dour has also made a contribution to the trend which may soon put the keyboard and high-tech drum artists in Paris out of their jobs.

Paying homage to Islamic brotherhoods

However, unlike his colleagues, the 45-year-old N'Dour has also made a shift in content with his new album. "Egypt" is a deeply religious album, recorded with an Egyptian chamber orchestra, which pays homage to the Mourides and other Islamic brotherhoods in Senegal.

The fact that Youssou N'Dour is portraying the leaders of the Mourides, the most important brotherhood, is a testament to their status in Senegal: There is hardly a home to be found there that does not contain a likeness of one of these esteemed and honored role models; the people live with them and know about their lives.

Thus, "Egypt" refers to a local variety of Islam, and the sensitive music for strings that Fatih Salama's orchestra plays here helps the listener transcend the vast expanse of the Sahara.

Pop music has a very different sound in Africa than it does in Europe anyway. In the countries that achieved independence later, such as Zimbabwe or Guinea-Bissau, it has always been part of the political struggle.

Islam is still a bonding element in Senegal

At the same time, in the countries that were already independent, the most important dance combos accompanied the upheaval in the new nation-states: In Guinea, Bembeya Jazz paid tribute to President Sekou Touré; Orchestra Baobab from Senegal sang – among other things – about religion and religious themes.

After all, Islam was – and is to this day – an important bonding element in the social structure of this small West African country.

Youssou N'Dour explains his approach this way: "I believe that Islam has to make use of creative media such as music and cinema in order to be better understood. I don't see myself as the champion of the religion. I am a faithful and practicing Muslim, but I am creating a work of music. And through this work of music, I speak about the realities that I perceive in relationship to the religion."

More than 20 years ago, Ndiouga Dieng, one of the singers from Orchestra Baobab, would hardly have expressed it differently, had he been asked about the lyrics of "Werente Serigne". The song, which appears on the legendary and recently re-released CD, "Pirates Choice", advises listeners to steer clear of religious disputes and to respect the religious leaders.

Bambar, pillar saint of Mouridism

Thioné Seck, who was briefly a bandmate of Diengs, a member of Baobab in the mid-1970s, wrote one of the most moving songs in the history of Senegalese pop music for the band: "Bamba", an ode to Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba.

Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba is the pillar saint of Mouridism, the most important variation of Senegalese Islam. He fought against colonialism; his birthplace of Touba, 100 kilometers east of the capital city of Dakar, is thought of as the country's holy city. At the same time, it is the fastest-growing city in West Africa.

Youssou N'Dour also dedicates two out of the eight tracks on his "Egypt" album to the religious leader who died in 1927. In addition, one song deals with the city of Touba and yet another is devoted to Bamba's closest companion, Cheikh Ibra Fall.

The African pop star considers it important to ground "Egypt" in Senegalese tradition. "Everybody has sung the praises of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba; that's how it is where we live. He is a leader, he is very important to the society; we sing about him and we thank him. There has always been music honoring Ahmadou Bamba. But I think that, for the first time, we have done something different with the more acoustic approach, which brings home the religious theme very clearly."

Hip Hop deals more critical with dignitaries

The big Senegalese pop stars who have dominated the dance floors and sales counters for decades are not alone in hearkening back to religious themes: Dakar's countless hip hop groups also take up the subject, but they handle it in a very different way.

They deal more critically with the dignitaries, and speak about abuse of power and the fatal combination of religion and politics. Youssou N'Dour does not go this far – although this album could certainly be understood as a commentary about September 11th.

"Egypt" was already released in Senegal a few months ago, but with a different title. "The CD was not welcomed to the same degree as a classical pop album," the singer admits. "But I think that people took notice of it after a while, and now they are talking about the record a lot. I think they are all waiting for the first concert."

Max Annas/Dorothee Plass

© TAZ, Germany

This article was previously published by TAZ, Germany, 28 July 2004

Translation from German: Mark Rossman

To find more about Youssou N'Dour, click here to get to his website on his label (Nonesuch Records)