Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love directed by Chai Vasarhelyi
( Senegal 2008, 102 minutes)
June 12, 2009 9:30 PM, Harvard Exit
June 14, 2009 1:30 PM, Harvard Exit
review and interview by Jon Kertzer
This is an extraordinary documentary feature debut by New York director Chai Vasarhelyi. Youssou N’Dour is certainly one of Africa’s best-known performers and one of the most famous people in his native Senegal. After seeing this film, you will know why: he is not only an incredible singer, songwriter and bandleader, but he is also a strong and articulate voice for his people. This film shows both sides of N’Dour, from intimate scenes at his family compound with his extended family, including mother and grandmother who are griots (the traditional singers and historians of his people), to his public persona in the crowds of adoring fans, to his appearances in the US Congress of health issues on Africa; to many memorable performances -- this movie does a great job of showing what makes Youssou N’Dour such a special individual.
The movie’s focus is the 2004 Egypt album. Chai Vasarhelyi started the film after hearing early versions of this recording, which N’Dour recorded with an Egyptian orchestra, led by Fathy Salama, and is written as an homage to the Senegalese Sufi Muslim religion and its beliefs. Following N’Dour through the recording process, and the first performances of Egypt, at the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco, then on through a lengthy tour throughout Europe; she is able to capture the essence of the work. But what was not planned was the negative response back in Senegal, where the album was taken off the radio, out of the marketplace, and almost universally criticized for it inappropriate subject matter. Exactly how Youssou N’Dour responds to the situation -- by taking advantage of his Grammy award for the album in a parade through the streets of Dakar, and a meeting with the president; as well as performing with his own griot and religious guru -- all shows the incredible talent and vision of N’Dour.
Aside from this dramatic story line, I Bring What I Love is worth seeing for its many well-recorded and filmed performances of Youssou N’Dour and his band Super Etoile, complete with lyric translations via sub-titles, which really help to bring the musical messages to life. Also really striking are the scenes from the annual pilgrimage of over one million Senegalese to Touba and its mosque; beautifully captured by Vasarhelyi and her crew. One gets a true feeling for life in Senegal, its people and religion, that is seldom scene in the usual stereotypical view of African poverty and war, that is the standard mainstream media view that Youssou criticizes in the film. N’dour will be happy with this more expansive and accurate view of Senegalese life.
Certainly this is one of the best movies made about African music, that both captures the heart of a notable performer, and documents one of the most important recordings made over the past decade. It succeeds both in telling this story, and giving true insight into Africa and its culture and religion.