This album was one of a few that made me want to try putting strings on my next record. I don’t like how strings are often used in western pop as a soft bed of sound in the background. I do like how they carry the lead parts on much of this album. The Egyptian musician Fathy Salama leads a large orchestra that includes violins, oud, kora, tabla, sagat, arghoul, mizmar, doholia, Senegalese percussion, lots of backing vocals – but no electric guitars, basses or keyboards. I’ve never gotten into Youssou N’Dour before I heard Egypt, in part because I associated him with western musicians I don’t like who touted him – e.g., Bono, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon. Mercifully, none of those guys had anything to do with the production of this album. I combed through his back catalog on line after listening to Egypt broke that associative chain. But I didn’t find anything that grabbed me.
People used to ask me what we meant by the name “Folk Implosion.” I’m not so interested in the “real” answer to that question, because I think it meant different things at different times to both of us. I can say that this record nails for me the way I ended up thinking of it the most often. People usually use the term “folk music” to refer to some imagined harmonious community in the past that created a certain kind of music that made people feel that they were at home. Current renditions of “folk” songs recall these halycon days for nostalgic audiences that imagine the wind whispering through the pines as they listen to bluegrass…or fill in the geographical detail and musical genre differently. What they usually don’t think of is the chaotic conflicts that actually defined those days gone by. Say, the terrorist violence against African Americans that took place in the Georgia pines — or in the pines of Maine, for that matter. (re the latter, check out the site http://www.malagaislandmaine.org/)
It seems fitting that ideas of “home” that makes people feel rosy and safe has to be evoked through a reference to the past. It’s distant enough from today that you can make it out to be sweeter than it really was. To me, “folk implosion” suggested the collapse of this understanding of folk music. Or of music generally, since all music functions as folk music to a certain degree.
On first glance, Egypt might seem to be precisely such an exercise in nostalgia. The lyrics are sung in Wolof and Arabic. I don’t speak either language, so my understanding of them is dependent on what I read from English speaking critics. I’ve read this is an album of sacred music that praises the tolerance and beauty of Islam as it is practiced in Senegal, which draws heavily on the Sufi tradition. Some of the songs are dedicated to historical marabouts of earlier eras. The material from this record was played live for the first time at the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco in 2008. According to the Guardian, “the shrine of one of the saints he was singing about was just a few minutes away in the labyrinth of lanes that form the medina (of) the artistic and spiritual capital of Morocco…a glorious city in its own right, with a mosque and university dating back to the 9th century. All roads lead to the Kairaouine mosque and shrine of Moulay Idriss II in the heart of the medina.”
By choosing to debut this material in this place, Youssou N’Dour aligns himself with a historical tradition that goes back for centuries. You might think, then, listening to this album helps you understand “the real” traditional music of Senegal. But you’d be wrong. The documentary film “I Bring What I Love” shows that the album was highly controversial in Senegal. Apparently, many people there thought that a pop singer who usually sings love songs in the realm of pop music should not record sacred music about religious figures. I have some problems with the way the film shows this controversy. It can come off at times as a form of neo-colonial thinking: the misguided thinking of those backward folks in Senegal that denounced the release of “Egypt” needs to be corrected by white film-makers, the white pop stars they interview – yes, Bono and Peter Gabriel – and the ultimate white taste makers, the Grammys. (The ceremony at which Egypt won a Grammy is presented as one of the redemptive moments in the film.) Maybe then those backwards Africans will recognize the genius of this singer.
If you can make it through this lame gauze the film layers over the issue, you can catch a glimpse of an artist who is practicing folk music in the best sense of the term. N’Dour knows he’s crossing borderlines that have a lot of historical conflict associated with them: not only the boundary between what is secular and what is sacred, but also the boundary between the Arab music and culture of Egypt and the music and culture of sub-saharan black Africa. He also aims to dislodge racist stereotypes about Islam that have taken root in the West in the wake of 9/11. All of these projects work against the two defining traits of the racist tradition of Orientalism as defined by Edward Said: 1. the idea that people in “the Orient” (or fill in the other of choice, eg. “Africa”) are everywhere all the same, and 2., the idea that they have no history.
So give “Egypt” a listen, and check out the film too. It has what D Boon might call a “history lesson” to teach you. One whose comforts come out of confrontation, not nostalgia.