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Youssou N'Dour has been the leading ambassador for Senegalese music ever since his association with Peter Gabriel in the mid 1980s. His crossover success peaked at "Seven Seconds", the mega-selling 1994 hit with Neneh Cherry. But for many hardcore fans of African music, his solo career has been a bit of a disappointment, characterised by lacklustre internationally released albums which seemed to pander too heavily to a western pop sensibility quite distinct from his more rootsy, locally produced cassettes. The fast and furious mbalax rhythms he unleashed on the world with his spellbinding 1983 breakthrough album Immigres were often watered down on subsequent releases, although his 2002 album Nothings In Vain (Coono du Reer) seemed to signal a return to form.
But even in this light, Egypt comes as a surprise. And a breath of fresh air. Only the coda of the opening track "Allah" betrays any European or American pop influences, with its echoes of (I kid you not!) Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore". Or maybe that's just a coincidence, because Egypt is steeped in the textures and tonalities of the Arab world.
Combining the thrilling sounds of Cairo's Fathy Salama Orchestra with a small group of Senegalese musicians and singers, the album is a homage to various saints and sages of Senegal's mystical (and moderate) Sufi take on Islam. It was apparently recorded before the infamous events of September 11, 2001, and probably delayed because of them, but its release now seems very pertinent.
Its not an immediate album by any means, and some may miss the major chords and frenetic mbalax rhythms of his other work, which only surface in restrained form on "Cheikh Ibra Fall". In their place are loping North African grooves, trilling flutes, the buzzing drones of various Egyptian reed instruments and big sweeping string arrangements. Youssou's distinctive tenor is unusually subdued in most places and often complemented by fine call-and-response chorus vocals. And the tinkle of kora and the woody tones of the balafon xylophone are skillfully combined with the sounds of an Egyptian orchestra.
For those who have tired of Youssou's chop-and-change approach to styles on recent albums, the consistency of tone and mood-generally one of reverent but restrained ecstasy -is very welcome. That and the fact that he doesn't sing a word of English on the entire disc.