High noon in Touba, Senegal at the country's most holy Islamic site and the air is thick and hot. Through it, the thousands of bodies bent in prayer flicker as the Imam projects a melodic chant over the loudspeaker. It's almost impossible to picture Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi with a cinematographer pinched between this sea of religious pilgrims to capture rare footage of "the grand magal," a rite of deep religious importance in Senegal and an event that provides some of the most striking imagery for her latest, first feature-length documentary, Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love. The difficulty viewers may have in picturing anyone behind a camera throughout the film speaks to the intimate and illuminating glimpses Vasarhelyi offers into her subject's life.
The film finds N'Dour, the devout Senegalese Sufi artist, at a trying moment in his musical career: the release of his Grammy-award-winning album Egypt (2004). Vasarhelyi follows N'Dour through West Africa, Europe, the US, Egypt, Morocco and Singapore as he performs the new material. While his hypnotic fusion of traditional Senegalese syncopation and the reeds, strings and flutes from Cairo's Fathy Salam Orchestra are revered abroad, his recordings and advertisements are buried at home.
Suspicion and outrage break out in the Senegalese community over the religious content of Egypt and many scoff at N'Dour's attempt to deconstruct the boundary between popular culture and the sacred messages of Islam. But in a post-9/11 world, when mainstream media promotes such a distorted and violent image of the Islamic faith, N'Dour insists that his mission could not have come at a more crucial time.
The film begins as a biography. We get a brief background of N'Dour through interviews with his family, friends and fellow musicians. He comes from a long line of mystic griot Sufi storytellers (on his mother's side) who preserve cultural history through song. N'Dour, with his distinctively electrifying voice, proved early on his gift to inspire through music. He was influenced not only by his own Sufi roots, but also by urban Senegalese dance rhythms known as mblax, American jazz, soul and rock. By his early twenties, Youssou formed the band Super Etoile de Dakar (Super Star of Dakar), and it was through their irresistible blend of traditional and new sounds that N'Dour gained international attention. He went on to collaborate with artists like Peter Gabriel, Sting and Bruce Springsteen.
But the soul of Vasarhelyi's documentary lies not in its biography, but in its provoking exploration of the conflicts N'Dour faces as he is praised abroad and reproached at home. Traveling with just one cinematographer, Vasarhelyi captures some deeply personal features of N'Dour's life, including several poignant scenes with his ailing griot grandmother, and his strict father who initially discouraged his aspirations to become a singer.
I Bring What I Love challenges the notion that contemporary pop culture is a sexualized arena that corrupts values and disgraces religion, and presents it instead as a powerfully positive force with the ability to unify and influence people across the globe.
Vasarhelyi's production is both visually and acoustically stimulating, including exhilarating concert footage from N'Dour's Egypt tour and an original score composed by Emmy winner Martin Davich (Trinity), six-time Academy Award nominee James Newton Howard (Blood Diamond) and N'Dour's musical collaborator, French composer and musician Jean Phillipe Rykiel. This vibrant presentation of Youssou N'Dour's journey affirms the power of music to transcend political and religious war and, perhaps more importantly, exposes an eclectic and mystical face of Islam in a time when the world may need it most.