Tonight in Seattle:  

Tonight at SIFF: Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love

 

The content of the documentaries in the Face The Music series of the annual Seattle International Film Festival can stretch the spectrum from hilarious hedonistic heavy metal hijinks (for example, Anvil! from last year, which helped earn its successful run at the Varsity theater) to the deeply spiritual and fiercely political portraits of Third World musicians. If you're guessing that this biography of Youssou N'dour falls into the latter category, well, you have a gift for the obvious assessment. But at least that means you know who Ndour is; "discovered" by Peter Gabriel in the 80s and appearing as a guest in his work, and helping out U2 and other big liberal rock stars with participation in benefit concerts, that's pretty much how most Americans first encountered him.

But it's been a few years since his passionate pop has done much action on most American airwaves (last heard: a vibrant collaboration with Neneh Cherry called "7 Seconds"). So due to N'dour's incredible talents as a vocalist, his apparent sincerity and humility, and filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's well-paced direction that I Bring What I Love updates (and doesn't bore with detumescent nostalgia or populist polemics).

Vasarhelyi received startled attention for her 2003 Tribeca Film Festival dominator A Normal Life, about refugees from Kosovar attempting to resurrect their previous lives, but was also an assistant to Mike Nichols for the American movie Closer. Thus with fine skills she builds from a compassionate heart an understanding of the world of Sengalese super star Ndour and his priestly Griot lineage (a master of song and story), shooting him sweetly cradling his grandmother in her bed, a woman who had sung before Kings. Ndour shows great love for his family in Dakar and they show immense respect and devotion for him as well; this is actually true all over Africa, which Ndour insists "is just not about poverty." He loves its diversity and religious differences, asserting they make the nations strong and beautiful.

A committed Sufi, N'dour was maintaining that faith's devotion to silence during the month of Ramadan when he had an idea for Egypt -- an album that would be as bold in Islam as it would be collaborative with Arabic musicians. Pouring his soul into this historical conceptual work, enlisting many great musicians from Africa and Egypt, its release was delayed by the events in New York of September 11, 2001. (Vasarhelyi shows the devastation of that day blended with similar horrifying bombings of Iraq in the war to come.) Ndour waited a while, fearing that an imminent backlash would occlude the record's qualities. But eventually this bold declaration of Muslim solidarity was put out there, and Vasarhelyi brilliantly follows N'dour's artistic and political heroism in not backing down to ridiculous cultural reactions to it.

{Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love screens at the Seattle International Film Film Festival tonight, June 12, at 9:30pm and Sunday, June 14 at 1:30pm, both screenings at the Harvard Exit.}

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