If Senegal’s finest musical ambassador has been reinvented in recent years as something of a cultural statesperson, it is with an expansiveness that shines through his latest album. Egypt, though rooted in the singer’s mbalax music, looks outwards to an idea of belonging that supersedes national borders.

That said, N’Dour’s subject matter and delivery have always been intimate and Egypt is no exception. It is, quite simply, a devotional album. Islam, and in particular N’Dour’s tradition of Sufism, has never been far below the surface of his music; here it glistens on the crest of waves of rhythm. Egypt – the title harks back to the spread of Sufi thought from east to west – expresses a continuity that’s heard in the ideas as much as the music, for the album (partially recorded in Cairo) is swept forward on the glissandi of an Egyptian string section.

I hesitate to use the word ‘fun’ to describe the tenor in which N’Dour’s eight songs – all address Senegalese holy men – are pitched, but there is an unmistakable lightness of touch. The emotional yearning that characterizes Sufi-directed music (for example, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali) is controlled, the focus tight. Yet N’Dour allows himself to soar: the racheted-up tempo of ‘Shukran Bamba’ or the trills of ‘Touba’ are fine examples.

New Internationalist issue 368 magazine cover This article is from the June 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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