In 2001, N’Dour traveled to Cairo to record an album of religious-themed music with the 14-piece Fathy Salama Orchestra. This project was strikingly ambitious and idiosyncratic — an international pop star celebrating West Africa’s Sufi Muslim sects in the Arab world’s most cosmopolitan city. N’Dour and Nonesuch shelved the project after September 11; upon its release three years later, this polyphonic exploration of Islamic culture was even more resonant.
Egypt showcases N’Dour in high griot mode. He begins with the general incantation “Allah,” proceeds to praise various Sufi holy men, and closes with a beautiful ode to the city sacred to N’Dour’s own Mourde sect, “Touba — Daru Salaam.” To hear the reeds, strings, and flutes of urban North Africa accentuate the muezzin-like edge of N’Dour’s voice as it soars in tandem, the kora’s earthy contrast with the elegant oud, and the intersecting crosscurrents of North and West African percussion, is to eavesdrop on a conversation between cultures whose nuances we can barely grasp from this distance. But though primarily directed to the Islamic world, Egypt had a message for the rest of us too: Not all Muslims are fundamentalist or even Arab, and not all humanists are Western or even secular.