YOUSSOU N'DOUR and the SUPER ETOILE DE DAKAR at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Tuesday (July 6), 7 pm. $30. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
If cream always rises to the top, it was inevitable that Senegalese performer Youssou N'Dour would spend the 80s ascending to the international stage, taking his heartbreakingly sincere tenor chops along for the ride. Of course, he got by with a little help from his friends. He's still in close contact with both Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, who benefited from the sonic purée of African and West Indian rhythms he helped popularize.
But for Youssou, the real crossover point came with 1994's 7 Seconds, his haunting pop collaboration with Swedish songbird Neneh Cherry (which I listened to on repeat for 45 minutes straight today; few songs are so binge-worthy). The multicultural-minded single was a world-wide smash, and a clear indication of the Western sensibility N'Dour would continue to adopt as time passed.
This is what many diehard African music enthusiasts have a problem with. In going international, said his critics, the son of a griot was heavily diluting the magic he'd first honed in Senegal with his band, Super Etoile de Dakar.
Which is why his latest album, the über-traditional, ultra-religious Egypt, is such a shocker. Gone are the synths, English lyrics, 4/4 time-signatures, big-name duets and pop influences that had come creeping into the mix since 7 Seconds. In their place, the Fathy Salama Orchestra of Cairo, Senegalese choirs, epic Arab strings, koras and tablas all frame N'Dour's sensitive exaltations of North African Islam and Sufi mysticism. The album sounds like it was recorded three centuries ago and remastered this year.
Was this a response to critics' objections that he'd strayed too far from his Senegalese roots?
"I don't want to be someone who listens to people saying, 'OK, you have to do this thing or that thing.' I want to be free to do what I feel," N'Dour tells me from his label, Nonesuch's, headquarters in New York City.
"Music is freedom. In the past I did a lot of great things, and magical things also in English or in French. And when you go far sometimes, and you come back home, you see a lot of things around you - your language, your tradition, and maybe you return to it tomorrow. I'm happy to touch traditional instruments. I'm happy to do a pan-African album."
N'Dour was also happy to do an album that counters the West's negative associations with his religion. Egypt celebrates Islam with soaring elation.
"For Islam, the past five years were really difficult," he says. "A minority of Islamic people got all the attention. But I think the majority of Islamic people believe and know Islam is a peaceful religion of tolerance and love.
"Leaders in Senegal, Islamic leaders, they have great stories. And when you talk about something from your faith, it's definitely joyful."
But what does this mean for the Youssou N'Dour we came to love with 7 Seconds? Is he gone for good, or will he delve back into the Western world again? From the sound of it, he'll never restrict himself to one style.
"I don't have a plan saying, 'Yeah, I'll do this or that,'" he says, "but I meet a lot of interesting people, and I'm open to changing the world a little bit, and making people know the diversity of the world. It's good."