Youssou N'Dour: The goodwill ambassador

Youssou N'Dour's new album, Egypt, celebrates the best of Islam and is his most personal to date. James McNair finds a man who knows his place in the world
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The Independent Culture

Arriving on foot - and, to his PR's surprise, on time - Youssou N'Dour wears jeans, black leather sandals and a blue-and-purple Paisley shirt. Were it not for his quietly commanding aura, you'd hardly guess he was a multimillionaire, world music's biggest star and, he tells me, Bono's "Africa correspondent".

We've met in the gorgeous medina of Paris's Arab Institute, where ornate gold tables, hookah pipes and exotic music bring a slice of North Africa to France. It may be the heat, or the relaxed setting, but soon N'Dour and I are barefoot.

The singer is in Paris to promote Egypt, a stunning new album that is easily his most personal and uncompromising. Merging the incantatory griot singing of his native Senegal with the exotic micro-tonality of Egyptian classical music, the album is a collection of praise songs - the Muslim N'Dour exploring Senegal's long Islamic history while bringing heartfelt glory to Sufi saints.

"I would hope that a Western person would enjoy the music before they start thinking about religion or politics," he says. But when pressed, this notoriously circumspect 44-year-old agrees that Egypt has a timely message. "My religion is about love and tolerance, but that of the extremists who get all the headlines is not. With Egypt, I feel like I am bringing honour back to my religion."

N'Dour's caution about Egypt was reflected in the album's painstaking gestation and long-delayed release. Much of it was recorded in Cairo and Dakar as far back as 1999, and for a time, N'Dour viewed it as something that he and his loved ones would enjoy in private, rather than a potential commercial release.

"When I finished it," he explains, "I had my last album, Nothing's in Vain, ready to go also. But then, after September 11, I played Egypt to my label, Nonesuch, as a kind of surprise. They liked it and wanted to put it out before Nothing's in Vain, but I said, 'No, this is not a response to September 11. It was written before that, and I want to keep it for later.'"

Big on sweeping, majestic arrangements scored for a 14-piece Arabic orchestra by the noted Egyptian composer Fathy Salamah, the new album has been much lauded. When N'Dour and Salamah premiered it at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music at the beginning of the month, one critic called it the world-music event of the year; N'Dour tells me the performance and resultant standing ovation were a "liberation" that reduced him to tears.

However, it is the message of Egypt that has really given the album legs as a news story: it was recently dissected on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, and even as I chat to N'Dour, his manager, Michelle "Gazelle" Lahana, is fielding an interview request from the American TV news giant CNN. Given that, last year, N'Dour opted to cancel a tour of the US in protest at the war in Iraq, the record's reception in America should prove interesting.

"I am not Bruce Springsteen," N'Dour says when quizzed about the cancelled dates, "but I wanted to use my voice in the US. It was to be my biggest tour there - eight weeks, travelling everywhere - and so it was the right occasion to say, 'I must protest against the war in Iraq; I must cancel.' I don't have a problem with the American people - I have a problem with their President. I'm not happy with the way he and others decide to resolve problems without the United Nations."

You could argue that America and its allies are the countries that really need to hear Egypt. But while N'Dour has now rescheduled some US dates, he will not be performing his new album on American soil, although he will talk about it while he's there. And if this is a further instance of N'Dour's diplomacy, his new album's adapted-for-the-West title is yet another.

He says: "If you buy it in Senegal, it is called Sant Allah, which means 'Thanks God'. But I don't want to force my religion on people, so I, not Nonesuch, made the decision to have a different title here in the West." He explains that he has retained the symbol for Allah on the Western version of the album's artwork. When it is put to him that this is delightfully cunning, since those most likely to take umbrage at the symbol are those least likely to recognise it, N'Dour smiles and says nothing.

Still most famous here for his collaboration with Neneh Cherry on the fabulous world-pop single "Seven Seconds" ("She is my dear sister/ Send her my love through your newspaper"), N'Dour was born in Dakar's sprawling, working-class suburbs. His father, Elimane, still works as a mechanic - though his son has offered to provide for him - and his mother, N'Deye Sokhna, recently welcomed him back into the neighbourhood after Youssou left a house he found ostentatious for something humbler and more private.

As with the Egypt album, this conscious downsizing of the trappings of his success seems indicative of a N'Dour who is newly determined to be himself. Previously dropped by two Western record labels, and long freighted with the Herculean task of doing for African music what Bob Marley did for that of Jamaica, he is happier and more creatively fulfilled than ever.

The ongoing challenges, he says, are work commitments that prevent him from spending more time with his six children, and the expectations of fellow Africans who see him as pop star, cultural ambassador and a kind of missionary. "When I last made the journey to Daru Salaam," he says of the vast religious pilgrimage that is memorably documented on Egypt's closing track, "I just wanted to be a disciple, but the older people wanted to talk politics and the teenagers wanted me to be the Youssou they see on stage. It was very embarrassing."

And what of the fact that he is a very wealthy man from an extremely poor city? Does it weigh on his conscience? "Yes," he replies thoughtfully. "But the first thing I did, a long time ago, was to bring my money and my business enterprises to Senegal to create jobs. We now have a radio station, a record company, an internet company and a magazine called L'Observateur Sénégal. We employ more than 140 people, and all of them have become financially independent.

"The other thing is to try to be reasonably modest. I try not to drive the biggest car or wear the most expensive clothes. I have lots of nice things, of course, but I love to be close to ordinary people, and if I get, say, a million dollars, I give a percentage to the Youssou N'Dour Foundation, which fights Aids and malaria. I want to be a good role model, so every young Senegalese person can say, 'Maybe that is possible for me.' I don't know if I manage it, but I try."

N'Dour's father was born in a village outside Dakar. A hard worker who has never learnt to read or write, he wanted his son to become a doctor or a lawyer. When Elimane married Youssou's mother, a griot singer and storyteller, it was taboo for a griot to marry outside the tradition. "That blend is the key to who I am," says N'Dour.

It was his maternal grandmother, Marie, who taught him most about griot culture. N'Dour's father sent him to stay with her when he was 15, and each time there was a birth or a marriage in the community, Marie would sing and give a traditional griot blessing. "Then I sang at a circumcision ceremony, and people said, 'You sound great!' Next day, something opened in my mind, and I thought, 'Maybe I could do this.'"

By the age of 23, N'Dour was fronting his own band, Super Etoile de Dakar. The group proved a striking vehicle for his five-octave vocal range, and he and his band helped to pioneer mbalax, a vibrant, up-tempo blend of African, Caribbean and European pop. As he matured as a lyricist, tackling themes such as apartheid and drought, N'Dour caught the attention of Senegal's politicians - and the British and American rock musicians who were exploring the same issues. By 1986, his spectacularly distinctive pipes had enlivened Peter Gabriel's album So and Paul Simon's Graceland.

N'Dour still speaks fondly of Gabriel. "He is someone I pray for," he says, adding that they will always "represent" each other in their respective home countries.

Recent rumours that Bono was trying to kick-start another Live Aid concert have been discredited, but would N'Dour have welcomed such an event? "He uses his influence wisely," he says. "But when you bring aid to Africa, make sure it goes directly to the people who need it most. Aids and malaria are obviously huge problems, but the creation of jobs is vital, too. That is what will help people change their own lives."

'Egypt' is out on Nonesuch