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One sings; the other doesn’t. That’s an essential difference between the Sufi tradition, which has brought the world such musicians as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the Islamic fundamentalism of countries where music is severely regulated or even—as in the Taliban’s Afghanistan—banned altogether. Obviously, such heavily Muslim African states as Senegal and Mali are not in the grip of anti-music zealots. These two nations have produced some of the most eminent Afro-pop performers, including Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure, and Oumou Sangare (Mali) and Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour (Senegal).

Afro-pop began by melding African folk styles with kindred New World forms—often Afro-Cuban, Jamaican, or African-American. In its early days, it was made principally for domestic consumption, but the range of ingredients expanded in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as musicians such as King Sunny Ade and N’Dour were introduced to Western audiences, producers, and musicians. (After Paul Simon’s Graceland, the deluge.) The Afro-pop CDs released over here—which sometimes partially cannibalize the cassette tapes sold over there—use several gambits to broaden their appeal: collaborations with such American and European players as Ry Cooder, Peter Gabriel, and Taj Mahal; lyrics in French and English, frequently expressing universal themes; and disco-friendly beats, sometimes produced with the same brands of synths and beatboxes used from London to Tokyo.

One representative example of such crossover strategizing was N’Dour’s 2000 album, Joko (From Village to Town), whose European version included duets with Sting and Wyclef Jean and a Peter Tosh cover. The Nonesuch label dumped those tracks for the American version, Joko (The Link)—a decision that presaged the singer-songwriter’s less emphatically crossed-over (but fairly Frenchified) 2002 album, Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du Réér). Yet the quieter sound of that disc is no preparation for the remarkable new Egypt, which eliminates everything that’s directly of Western provenance. The lack of electrobeats, guest stars, and protest lyrics is nothing, however, compared with the album’s agenda: praising Allah and the Sufi holy men who developed Senegal’s brand of Islam.

The praise song is a venerable African custom, but one that doesn’t quite translate to most outsiders. They’d probably rather hear N’Dour sing something like “Mademba,” an attack on Senegal’s national power company, than lyrics extolling such West African marabouts (saints) as Cheikh Amadou Bamba and Cheikh Ibra Fall. As for glorifying Allah, the timing’s not so great; Osama bin Laden is hardly the best advance man Islam’s deity has ever had. Even N’Dour apparently recognizes that Egypt is a tough sell: The album was recorded in 1999, yet the singer didn’t perform any of its music until the World Sacred Music Festival last month in Morocco.

Egypt is a statement of solidarity with Islam from a man who canceled last spring’s U.S. dates to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq (but at press time was about to begin a tour that visits Lisner Auditorium on Thursday, July 1). While the specific saints won’t mean much to nonbelievers, these songs emphasize enlightenment over power, peace over war. The final track, “Touba—Daru Salaam,” hails a land of peace, whose name doesn’t merely rhyme with Jerusalem. “Shalom,” “salaam,” and “salem” are all essentially the same word, a bit of Judeo-Islamic-Christian overlap that hasn’t had much practical impact over the years.

Admittedly, it’s hard to get excited about most of the album’s specific sentiments, at least in translation from the original Wolof: “You brought us the gámmu/Revived the schools, bolstered the mosques/ Father of Dabakh, you are an achiever” is a characteristically flat expression of Egypt-ian devotion. Yet N’Dour has one of the great voices of our time—some say the greatest, but let’s leave such certainty to the devout—and this project is the purest musical vision he’s ever presented to Western listeners.

The music is a gentle yet never becalmed mix of polyrhythmic Senegalese mbalax and swirling Egyptian orchestral arrangements. These eight longish songs were co-produced by Fathy Salama, who made mainstream Cairo-pop hits in the ’80s but is now considered something of a maverick. The resulting blend integrates the dervish-evoking strings and wind instruments heard in the music of legendary Egyptian singer Um Kulthum—and, more recently, Belgian-born crossover diva Natacha Atlas—with the sharper yet still melodic timbres of West African drums, the harp-like kora, and the balafon, a wooden-keyed cousin of the xylophone. It’s a true fusion, not merely a different style of crossover.

Interestingly, Egypt doesn’t exalt the celebrated voice of the man whose name is above the title. It’s there, of course, amid call-and-response structures that interlock the lead vocals with both instruments and choirs. N’Dour has commanding moments, as when he introduces “Shukran Bamba”’s melodic motif over an elementary string-section flourish, or when he reclaims the album’s most Senegalese-sounding track, “Cheikh Ibra Fall,” from a brief percussive outburst. Still, this salute to the great men of Sufism is not a great-man move. Perhaps the most reverent thing about this lovely album is how it submerges its auteur in the whole—a strategy whose meaning should be equally clear to the religious and to those who accept only art as a higher power.

Like N’Dour, Oumou Sangare has a striking voice, a strong sense of conviction, and a growing predilection for acoustic instruments. In fact, six of the eight “new” tracks on her recent 20-song, two-CD retrospective, Oumou., have been naturalized by co-producer Nick Gold, who reportedly replaced synths, strings, and electrobeats with African instrumentation. (The previous versions of these six songs were available on a 2001 cassette, Laban, released only in Mali.) Newcomers to African music will likely find Oumou. more immediately accessible than Egypt, thanks to more propulsive rhythms, lively vocal interplay, and sweet melodies. The CD booklet includes only snippets from the lyrics, but anyone who reads the singer’s accounts of her songs will recognize another important difference between Sangare’s album and N’Dour’s: She comes not to praise African tradition, but to challenge it.

Sangare’s style, known as “Wassoulou,” is named for a region of southern Mali, but also denotes an inquisitive outlook. Rather than praise songs, Wassoulou musicians perform tunes that dispense advice and criticism. The child of a bigamous marriage, Sangare often sings about the plight of Malian women, denouncing male domination. Her solution isn’t especially radical—she endorses love and mutual respect—and is sometimes expressed in folk numbers that are only slightly updated. Yet by Malian standards, some of her songs are extremely provocative: “Magnoumako” (“Agony”) recounts her mother’s hard life, “Dugu Kamalemba” (“The Womanizer”) denounces polygamy, and her first big hit, “Diaraby Nene” (“The Shivers of Passion”), candidly references physical desire.

None of Oumou. is frenetic, and it includes a few songs that are probably heard regularly in European chill-out rooms. (Notable candidates include the sauntering “Magnoumako” and a trip-hoppy remix of “Djorolen” that sounds eminently relaxed, although its title translates as “Anxiety.”) Like N’Dour’s music, Sangare’s is melodically percussive, based instrumentally on the staccato tone and rippling patterns of the kamalengoni, a plucked six-string harp that sounds much like the kora. The vocals are equally intricate, a shifting mosaic of solo, unison, and harmony singing. Mali is even closer to North Africa than Senegal, so it’s hardly surprising that songs such as Laban’s title track feature spiraling violin accents.

As a greatest-hits album, Oumou. will be widely second-guessed. Where, for example, is the exuberant title song from 1993’s Ko Sira? Yet such fresh selections as the lilting “Wayeina” and the upbeat, horn-driven “Yala” are worth the price of admission. And Gold and Charlie Gillett, who compiled the discs, have programmed a set that flows as admirably as one of the singer’s own compositions. In her lyrics, Sangare often takes the role of questioner, but her music has a percolating composure. It’s protest music blessed with an equanimity few true believers can match. CP

N’Dour will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 1, at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H Sts. NW. For more information, call (202) 994-6800.