June 16, 2009 / 8:45 PM / 10 years ago

Youssou N'Dour film explores music and Islam

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Pop singer Youssou N’Dour’s 2004 album of Islamic music earned him a boycott by some Muslim fans, but in a new documentary about the album, “Egypt,” he says the music has encouraged a deeper appreciation for Islam.

“Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love,” a documentary by Chai Vasarhelyi that opened in New York on Friday, contrasts the enthusiastic response the Grammy-winning album “Egypt” got during a tour in Europe and Asia with its cold reception in his native Senegal, where it was the subject of a boycott.

“I was frustrated. The music wasn’t speaking to people,” N’Dour told Reuters about the reaction in his home country.

“When there’s a break with tradition, or something changes, people can’t accept it right away. It takes a little more time,” the 49-year-old singer said, speaking in French through a translator.

“I felt that the album could be a positive contribution,” he said. “My music ... it says that Islam is tolerance and peace.”

The film explores the controversy over the album, following N’Dour on tour and after he won a Grammy for “Egypt” in 2005.

In Europe, N’Dour’s performances of songs like “Allah,” performed in the Wolof language with a classical Egyptian orchestra, were met mostly with dancing and standing ovations, and only a few complications.

At a concert in Ireland, N’Dour, who describes himself as a devout Muslim, discovered that audience members were drinking beer. He delayed his performance for a half hour with a plea that it be alcohol-free.

In Senegal, newspapers accused N’Dour — who has collaborated with Bono and Peter Gabriel, and is known for his annual all-night concerts in Paris and New York and at his club in Dakar — of insulting Islam, arguing that pop and religious music should not mix.

When N’Dour joined other members of the Mouride brotherhood, a branch of African Sufi Islam, on the annual pilgrimage to Senegal’s holy city of Touba, he was shunned.

Descendants of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a Muslim mystic, poet and pacifist who founded the Mouride brotherhood in the 1880s, even threatened N’Dour with a lawsuit, though the threat was later called a misunderstanding.

The controversy was largely forgotten after N’Dour, the highest-selling African artist, won his first Grammy for the album. N’Dour went on to perform religious music with one of Senegal’s most famous praise singers.

“It was also an opportunity to say to our community of religious singers that we all are doing music. We can sing together,” N’Dour said.


In recording “Egypt,” N’Dour said he was inspired to introduce a global audience to music that “praises the tolerance of my religion” and showcased West Africa’s contributions to Islam.

Mouridism is widely practiced in Senegal and Gambia and counts several million adherents. It focuses on the mystical elements of Islam and emphasizes the role of a spiritual guide, or marabout.

The album’s name is a tribute to Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian singer whose music N’Dour grew up listening to with his father, a devout Muslim and a disciple of Bamba.

N’Dour recorded the album prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States, but delayed its release to avoid any association between the music and the attacks.

“It has no relationship to 9/11, and I didn’t want to release it then because I didn’t want it to be taken as something that was linked to 9/11,” he said.

By 2004, he said he felt he had waited long enough.

“Music is part of everything. My religion is also part of everything,” N’Dour said.

Editing by Eric Beech

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