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Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Senegalese pop sensation Youssou Ndour has spent the last 20 years in the spotlight as a world-renowned musician and the iconic representative "voice of Africa." At the height of his career, Youssou became frustrated by the negative perception of his Muslim faith and composed Egypt, a deeply spiritual album dedicated to a more tolerant view of Islam. The album's brave musical message was wholeheartedly embraced by Western audiences but ignited serious religious controversy in his homeland of Senegal. The film chronicles the difficult journey Youssou must undertake to assume his true calling. Written by
"For me, it's very important that people like my music at home," is what Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N'Dour told Hank Bordowitz in a 2003 interview for the music journalist's third-world music anthology "Noise of the World: Non-Western Musicians in Their Own Words", and judging by N'Dour's humble demeanor in this promotional video for his 2005 album "Egypt", um, I mean, documentary film "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love, you believe him, in spite of the film's obvious idolatry toward its subject. With the release of his ambitious, but polarizing album, which faced a national boycott resulting in poor sales, N'Dour made good on his proclamation to Bordowitz that "he wanted to enter into realms that Senegalese musicians had never entered before," when the Sufi Muslim angered his countrymen by putting their faith on the commercial marketplace. The forward-thinking(and cosmopolitan) vocalist expected too much of his native fans, many who are too poor to leave the continent, let alone, their own country. Although N'Dour, to quote John Mellencamp, "got nothing against the big town," Africa's biggest musical star still lives in Dakar, and seems pretty accessible for a man of his stature. To support this everyman image, the documentary crew follows N'Dour back to his griot roots, his grandmother's house, a shack, in which the moviegoer may wonder why this frail woman is living in such poverty-stricken trappings. The cynic in me can't help but question if the film's sole purpose is to function as a public relations tool, by which N'Dour may continue to hold victory parades in honor of his personal achievements. The question that lies at the heart of the film is this: Did N'Dour have the right to release "Egypt" during the sacred month of Ramadan? Upset over the album's reception, N'Dour's London agent complains that the harsh criticism brought upon her client is unwarranted. He's one of them, she says; a Sufi Muslim, a Senegalese, but a man who has been "attracting the famous and wealthy to his concert" for years, writes Peter Fletcher in "World Music in Context: A Comprehensive Study..." All that time overseas pursuing fame and fortune, all the hobnobbing with famous friends(Peter Gabriel, Bono, etc.), must have westernized N'Dour to some degree. Had an outsider, say David Byrne, done the same, he'd be accused of cultural insensitivity and hubris. But N'Dour, a man with an awareness of how Contemporary Christian artists reconfigure the gospel in a secular language, should have known that the implementation of this blueprint for the Islamic world would face stiff opposition from his unworldly fanbase, whose simple lives need no baroque touches on their faith.
"Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love" bears the unmistakable air of having an agenda; it's a verification of his Sufi cred, like in the scene where the father takes his two sons to a mosque. In another scene, N'Dour is expected to sacrifice a goat for Ramadan, to the obvious delight of his father. Since the basis of N'Dour's career was "to prove a point to his father"(an excerpt from the Bordowitz interview), who had discouraged his son from pursuing music as a career, the singer's hands on participation in this ancient, barbaric ceremony might be a balm to heal his personal relationships, as well as his professional ones. Killing an animal is a pretty retrogressive act for somebody who recorded "Egypt" with the expressed interest of bringing Islam into the twenty-first century. Fundamentalism is antithetical to his whole musical outlook, so only a father, perhaps, worried that his son is too cosmopolitan, too westernized, could inspire such a compromise to his lofty ideals. The father's disapproval of the "Egypt" project is never plainly spoken, but it's suggested by the knife in N'Dour's hand.
"Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love" needs explicit dissenting voices to be of any interest for the non-fan. Only briefly, when the filmmaker cross-cuts worshippers at a mosque with revelers at a concert do we see a strong argument against secularizing Islam being made. Since little is heard from his strongest critics, when N'Dour wins a Best World Music Grammy for "Egypt", the moviegoer's impression is that the whole breadth of the Sufi-Muslim community celebrated his win. The Grammy, a signifier of western hegemony, can't possibly mean anything to a devout Muslim, but the film persuades you that it does.
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