“When they talk about Africa, they talk about disease and war,” Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour told the audience midway through the third of four nights at Carnegie Hall. “But Africa has more. Africa wants to move toward Africa.” The series’ first three performances—grouped together as “This Is Africa”—showcased a part of our world we need to understand much better. Sunday night explored Senegalese griot storytelling and praise singing, Monday introduced new talent Julia Sarr, and Tuesday’s “The Story of Mbalax” presented N’Dour as he’s best known, with a stripped-down version of his fabled Super Etoile band. The music’s blend of Senegalese percussion, Afro-Cuban flava, and deep r&b grit is rendered even more hypnotic by the hijaz melodic scales and muezzin vocals that blew into sub-Saharan Africa many centuries ago from the minarets of North Africa.
The final night’s ravishing performance of last year’s Egypt acknowledged those ties between North and South, and brought world music and the orchestral concert to new conceptual levels by featuring the oblique oriental rhythms, swooning strings, and raw, gorgeous flute of Fathy Salama’s Cairo Orchestra together with Super Etoile’s kora and key percussionists in a ravishing performance of Egypt‘s profoundly personal and spiritually radiant account of Sufi Islamic life.
“Islam is not sad,” N’Dour explained at the outset and then spread his slim shoulders wide like wings to swoop up and down the entire register of the human voice. From piercingly bell-like to deep and fine grained, he bent sound to emotion, as passion for his faith welled up from some still, inner place, making each of the set’s eight praise songs a true act of grace. At once a reverent traditionalist and a fusion-seeking humanist, Africa’s greatest living singer is a focal point for the continent’s evolving self-definitions—for an Africa looking back to its roots as well as forward toward a modern, cheerfully inclusive state that shares beats, codes, and brotherhood.