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Youssou N'Dour on Music, Islam, and Obama Youssou N'Dour on Music, Islam, and Obama

Youssou N'Dour on Music, Islam, and Obama

by Andrew Price
June 26, 2009

 

In the wake of controversy, and in the spotlight of a new documentary, the venerable musician opens up.You have probably heard the Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour. It is N'Dour's bracing voice, singing in his native Wolof, that takes over for Peter Gabriel at the end of the 1986 single "In Your Eyes." For Africans, though, and especially Senegalese, N'Dour is a cultural icon. In the 1970s, N'Dour helped develop a musical genre called m'balax-a fusion of Western pop styles with traditional Senegalese griot percussion-that still thrives today.When N'Dour released Egypt, an album celebrating the Sufi tradition of Islam, however, he faced an unexpected backlash. While the album earned him his first Grammy, it inspired criticism in the Senegalese press and boycotts from Muslims, upset that a pop star would record religious music. The documentary I Bring What I Love (which is now playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles July 3) tells the story of the Egypt album and the controversy that surrounded it. GOOD recently talked with N'Dour to ask him about music, Islam, and Obama's speech in Cairo.GOOD: How did you first become interested in music? What were your early influences?YOUSOU N'DOUR: I started when I was 16. My principle influences were salsa and rumba. My references were my mother's family of griot singers, African traditional singers, and some more modern voices like [the afrobeat pioneer] Fela Kuti. It was in my blood. I just wanted to sing.G: Can you describe the m'balax music you helped to develop?YN: The mbalax is a rhythm and a dance, where the percussion and the talking drums are very important. There is a real dialogue between the percussion, the talking drums, and the people who dance.G: And you sing in Wolof, the Senegalese language?YN: The language I'm most comfortable with is Wolof. It's important for me that people from Senegal understand my lyrics. Sometimes I sing in English or in French, but Wolof is my first language and I live in Senegal.G: What inspired the 2004 Egypt album?

YN: When I was a little boy, my father used to listen to Umm Kulthum's concerts on short wave radio. I grew up with that music and always liked it. In 2000, during the Ramadan, the idea came to me to record something just for my people. An album they could listen to during Ramadan. Then 9/11 happened and I decided not to release it. I waited three years.G: Was there a message about Islam that you wanted to get across to people in Egypt?YN: I wanted everyone to understand that Islam is not only an Arabic religion. It's everywhere in the world. But especially, when I did that album, it was because I had always wanted to record something with an Egyptian orchestra.G: And the reaction to the album wasn't particularly warm?YN: First, in Senegal, it was difficult. People weren't used to me singing about my faith. They were really surprised and shocked. I did a lot of interviews to explain my project. It was an intimate project that I didn't plan to release at first. But then, all my friends told me that this music should be heard and is for everyone.G: You've worked with foreign musicians like Peter Gabriel and embraced lots of different kinds of music in your own. Does this welcoming attitude towards musical differences have anything to do with your message about a more tolerant Islam?YN: Yes and no. I consider myself first a musician, not as a Muslim guide. I love to share musical experiences with different musicians-rock, pop, or jazz.G: What do you hope this new documentary accomplishes?YN: I hope it will carry a new image of Islam to the world. A realistic image of black African Islam is shown in the movie. I think also that the film has retraced the story of griots, our storytellers. But you know, the first time I saw the movie, I learned things about myself. I saw events that I have forgotten. I was a real spectator of the film. I realized, through the director's eyes, how people see me.G: Did you see Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University? What did you think about it?YN: I haven't seen it but I read it and I think it was a very good speech. We have the same idea and understanding of what Islam really is-a tolerant and peaceful religion. A minority makes the image of Islam dangerous and frightening but it's not the Islam of a majority of Muslim people. I also agree with Obama that things will not change in one day. It will take time for things to evolve.Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
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