NY MuslimVoices Festival: Singer Youssou D’Nour performs for peace and tolerance


by Arita Soenarjono



Youssou D'Nour & The Etoile De Dakar Band

Youssou D'Nour & The Etoile De Dakar Band

“Muslims don’t just pray at mosques. We want to have fun, too” Youssou D’Sour

When tensions flare in the Middle East, some Americans don’t see them through lenses of political, historical or socio-economic grievances. They opt to equate Muslims as congenital terrorists. Although the media has much at fault for fueling misconceptions, the US government failed to close a widening chasm with the Muslim world. Meanwhile there are approximately seven million Muslims in the US of which 600,000 reside in New York City.

Now, the tide begins to turn. President Obama’s speech in Cairo vowed to forge a new relationship, moving forward with “courage, rectitude, resolve,” and on June 6, 2009, New Yorkers backed him as they welcomed the Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas festival in Brooklyn, home to 100,000 American Muslims.

Observe and learn! asked Rachel Cooper, director of Cultural Program and Performing Arts at Asia Society. Her organization has partnered with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and New York University Center for Dialogue to spearhead a global tapestry of Muslim cultural performances from countries as far away as Indonesia and Senegal. Through conference, music, art, dance, film, and storytelling the program aims to foster mutual respect that leads to understanding and coexistence among people.

“It’s about voices, expressions from all different permutations with a focus to coming together,” said Rachael Cooper who is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia and has been with Asia Society since 1993. “First you listen. Then you’ll understand.”

So far, the response to this cultural diplomacy has been nothing but positive. People came in droves to experience the voices on stage performed by Muslim artists and spoken in their native tongues. They paid particular attention to musician Youssou D’Nour, headlining his sold-out concert to kick off the 10 day celebration.

“I don’t even know where to begin,” said Rasuul Muray, a non-Muslim poet from Brooklyn who identifies his religion as African American. “We share common ancestors, but never seen him before tonight. I think it’s his voice, his energy that speaks to me.”

That Friday night, a large multi ethnic crowd packed the scene at a lobby and spilled over to outside BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. They wore outfits ranging from casual jeans and suits to traditional tunics, complete with head wraps, kufis and shawls. They were African Americans, Latin Americans, and South Asian descents, some of whom were non-English speakers, chatting incessantly while shielding the rain under a landing strip of green-filtered lighting attached to the building’s glass canopy. From June 5th to 7th, a similar décor illuminated the Empire State Building to help promote the color of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.

At eight o’clock, Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid a brief and surprise visit to BAM. In the past, he had been pressured to take a more balanced public position on Israel-Gaza war. But before the program officially started, he took the stage in show of support and greeted the audience with Assalam’alaikum, peace be upon you.

Then the stage turned into total darkness when Syamsi Ali stepped into a spotlight and began to recite verse 13 surah Al-Hujurat from the Holy Qur’an. Almost like singing, his high pitched voice emanated in modulating Arabic melodies, matching text per text according to its proper grammatical rules while stretching and shortening the vowels in each sentence.


The 42 year old Imam from the Islamic Cultural Center New York is recipient of 2009 Ellis Island Medal of Honor who also chairs Al-Hikmah, the Indonesian Community Mosque in Queens. He echoed a message of unity, calling all men of different nations or races to embrace each other’s cultures since humans share common roots from Adam and Eve.

Following the Qur’anic recitation the Ushaaq Ensemble performed world premiere of Salam Suite led by Iraqi-American composer/musician Amir El Saffar. The six men group featured a Bangladesh born vocalist Marina Alam chanting “Ya nabi Salam alaika” in her floating high notes and magnificent breath control.

Ms. Alam started singing at age four and has a wide repertoire performing Sufi tradition, Indian classical and soul jazz. She hopes to use her medium to “show the beautiful side [of Islam] and not the extremism.”

What proceeded was a highly anticipated performance. Applauds intensified as the star of the evening, singer Youssou D’Nour (pronounce yousue en-dure) approached the microphone and brought down the house to a non-stop sheer euphoria.

“Sing,” he said in between thunderous cheers, wearing a silver Kaffan, ankle length robe from Senegal. “You can sing; you can dance; so you enjoy the music … Muslims don’t just pray at mosques. We want to have fun, too.”

And for over two hours, the Senegalese most celebrated artist kept the audience mesmerized through a plethora of global sound of music; from traditional African to contemporary jazz; from pop and R&B to Cuban and Arabia – all riding on various instruments: electric guitar, synthesizer and drums.

As Youssou sang “Bamba,” “Birima” and “Immigres,” everyone was on their feet, clapping to the exuberant rhythm of Mbalax (pronounced umm bah-laakh), which is a mixed arrays of percussion (sabar) and traditional talking drum (tamar), improvising and crisscrossing each other’s rhythms in a form of dialogues, while making “mbung-mbung” sound either in two or three pattern beats. At times Youssou’s voice was in winding and pleading sound; other times in catchy, short phrases and calling out repetitions. “Do you hear me father Bamba? Do you hear me father Bamba?” he sang.

“Amazing,” said Kevin Nathaniel Hylton, a blonde gridlocked musician in dyed shirt who plays ancient African hands instrument called mbira. “Just amazing. The way the music came out. It’s just like water. It pulls you in.”

Like many, Mr. Hylton danced to impress. He climbed over the stage to give dollar bills to band members while doing an Afro-Mauritanian dance, the Wango with arms swinging, head shaking and fancy footwork.

Youssou showed his gift of vocal range and storytelling through collections of devotional songs, which he delivered powerfully yet tenderly in Senegalese language of Wolof, weaving lyrics that transcend power of Muslim faith and illuminating its rich traditions and history. He spoke of different side of Islam the media rarely mentions and its worldwide acceptance, because “Islam is not just for the Arabs, but for over 95% Senegalese … so, there are a lot of Muslims.”

In between performances, two giant screens displayed images of famous Senegalese mosques and congregation of devout Muslims praying. Youssou sent out public invitation to experience Touba in central Senegal, which is a Holy city where its founder Shaikh Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke is laid to rest.

A special dedication in Aamadu’s honor is mentioned through award winning song, “Amadu Bamba.” Youssou considered him as a guide to his Mouridism brotherhood and for his relentless struggle to fighting colonialism, “not through physical [violence,] but through [five principles] of Islam.”

Youssou was born in 1959 in impoverished Medina section of Dakar, the capitol of Senegal, where today it is city of hospitality brimming with life and where fish is the number one consumption. He was raised to embrace Sufism and learned the art of musical oral storytelling from his Griot grandmother who died at age 96 in 2006. It is to her “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love” is dedicated. The 104 minute movie about his spiritual journey and love of Africa was directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, a 30 year old Princeton educated filmmaker .

After performing at communities and ceremonial gatherings, Youssou earned a nickname “The little Prince of Dakar.” He was 14 at the time and later had a radio station ushered his career. By 1984, he formed Super `Etoile de Dakar band (Superstar of Dakar). Three of the members are still touring with him and performed at BAM. They are Habib Faye (base), Babacar Faye (percussion) and Assane Thiam (tamar, which is Senegalese small drum played with one hand and long thin stick and is tucked under the armpit). The rest of the group included Abdoulaye Lo (drums), Jean Philippe Rykiel (keyboards), Jimi Mbaye and Omar Sow (guitar), Birame Dieng and Moustapha Mbaye (vocal).

Youssou’s rise to fame came laden in controversies. In 2003, he made headlines when he cancelled his US tour in a protest over Iraq invasion. The following year his album Egypt – although eventually won a Grammy Award – was initially boycotted for two years in Senegal. Critics labeled it blasphemous, accusing him to desecrating Islam since it marries religious theme with popular music. In the end Senegalese reconsidered upon learning outside positive reaction towards the album, and how it could help promote Islam.

As a prolific humanitarian who was named UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Youssou helped fight against malaria by encouraging Africans to use nets. He shared the stage touring internationally with western pop stars Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Bono and Paul Simon.

Youssou, a father of two sons, successful media mogul, band leader, poet, song writer, drummer and devout Muslim closed the evening with “New Africa,” a soundtrack to “Youssou D’Nour: I Bring What I love,” in line with message behind the Muslim Voices: peace and unity.

“Change your thinking, work together! Keep on working, Cheik anta dio, Kwame Nkrumah, Stephen Biko. All you people, Africa.”

Adeyemi from Brooklyn had the last word. “His voice was that of my ancestors. And the drum is like the language of God. After tonight, I am convinced I have a calling to Islam.”

~ by arita on June 13, 2009.

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