Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love
A movie review
Youssou N'dour, a melodic peacemaker of considerable fame, is wooing the world with his songs of devotion in this Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi indy film. The camera follows him for a two year period around three continents, recording and promoting his latest album, Egypt, featuring a sacred subject set to a 21st century pop beat.
What this Afropop megastar from Senegal loves more than anything: Singing, spirituality, and spreading the message of peace and unity (not necessarily in this order).
Mr. N'dour, a descendant of griot singers (musical story tellers) on his mother's side, felt compelled to try something new and different by combining his contemporary compositions with Senegal's religious history, mostly for his own joy and pleasure at first. Would his secular success withstand the innovative transition, mixing his unique musical style with his devout faith? At the outset of filming the outcome was still a mystery.
When Mr. N'dour ambitiously set out to spread the word of his personal beliefs by globally singing tracks from the album he ran into quite a bit of resistance in his own country. Ms. Vasarhelyi's movie chronicles a reaction of considerable political and religious controversy evoked in response to Egypt's subject matter behind the catchy tunes and heavily syncopated joyful rhythm.
Right from the beginning this easy on the ear venture was beset with problems and the project had to be postponed several times. When Mr. N'dour finally began recording with the Fathy Salam Orchestra of Cairo in artistic collaboration with his own native musicians, Senegalese conservatives were reluctant to make the creative leap with him.
Egypt's release date was repeatedly set back by one thing or another until 2004. Beginning his world tour, his latest work was boycotted by his country's radio stations and suppressed by rumors and lies blocking him from sharing his music with his fellow countrymen, falsely labeling him a heretic.
Mr. N'dour drew upon his spiritual conviction, love of his family as well as famous foreign musical connections to keep his dream alive. Rather than being caught up in the turmoil of rebuff in his homeland, he rationally reframed his position. When asked by French media about these events, he described his critics' reaction by just saying "They were surprised."
Eventually, being awarded a Grammy abroad helped him regain national respect and brought his local fans back. It was a hard won victory, documented every step of the way by the young filmmaker.
The biographically intimate portrait seamlessly follows the performer from gatherings of his clan, filmed at his ancestral home and singing in his nightclub in Dakar (named Thiossan), to internationally delighting audiences in sold-out concerts throughout Africa, Europe and America.
In the process we learn much about the culture that shaped him, the beauty of a uniquely Senegalese version of mystical Sufism and the wealth of his cultural heritage. Scenes, filmed at Senegal's Grand Mosque of Tuba, celebrating the pilgrimage of "grand magal," and the orchestra's debut in Fez, Morocco, are especially out of the ordinary.
The release of I Bring What I Love in the U.S. is a tribute to Ms. Vasarhelyi's cinematographic instinct and will more than likely reap the benefit of audience recognition for telling the tale of Mr. N'dour's passionately envisioned new musical direction.
Some of us, like me, may just plain enjoy the film's infectiously tuneful soundtrack, happy tempo and the visual swirl of exotic locations. It is quite a treat.
Other stories by Victoria Barkley: