Last year Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour released Egypt (Nonesuch), a stunning musical statement intended in part to challenge perceptions of Islam in the West. Instead of using his longtime African band, mbalax masters the Super Etoile, N’Dour recorded the album with Fathy Salama’s Cairo Orchestra, an ensemble steeped in the ancient traditions of Arabic classical music. The original tunes on Egypt are praise songs that celebrate West African Sufism–a deeply tolerant strain of Islam that gets little attention in American media coverage of the Muslim world. N’Dour canceled a U.S. tour in early 2003 to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq, but he doesn’t strike a confrontational tone on Egypt; his humanism is couched in a deeply satisfying, beautiful collection. Songs like “Shukran Bamba” and “Touba-Daru Salaam,” about an iconic figure in Senegalese Sufism, blend West African instrumental patterns with the melodic structures and harmonies popularized by the Arabic singer Uum Kalthoum, but the music isn’t always so blatantly cross-cultural. The opening “Allah” has an almost sprightly lilt and a sunny pop melody, while the lush “Mahdiyu Laye” layers oud, Egyptian flute, and piercing double-reed instruments over a gorgeous string arrangement marked by a Western tonality. Regardless of the setting, N’Dour’s powerful singing remains the focus. He soars over the diverse arrangements with a gossamer litheness, shifting between chantlike passages, upper-register cries, and neatly articulated whispers, but always grounded in the arrangements. N’Dour is a spectacular live performer who doesn’t make it here often, and this show with Fathy Salama’s Cairo Orchestra is likely a onetime opportunity. Thu 11/3, 8 PM, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114, $20-$45. All ages.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.