The other evening I watched the documentary “Youssour N’dour: I Bring What I Love” a film by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. The film follows Youssour from his early days in Senegal living in a village with his family who carried with them the tradition of the Griot. The griot tradition is a mixture of drumming and praise singing influenced by the Afro-Cuban stylization created as Africans who were part of the Diaspora returned to West Africa.
Youssour was encouraged at a young age to pursue his dream of singing and they saw his talent as a gift from God, one that would also help to bring further wealth to the village (whereas they could eat larger, meatier animals). Senegal, like many West African nations is divided between Christianity and the Muslim religions. Youssour was raised Muslim and the rituals of the Muslim practice have influenced his music both audibly and subjectively.
As his popularity grew, he and his group landed a deal with a larger record label and he had multiple opportunities to sing with famous international pop stars (Sting, Peter Gabriel, Neneh Cherry). But it was here that he started to experience backlash from the people of Senegal who were not pleased with a religious style of song/singing being equated with pop music.
The dichotomy between honored religious practice and a more commercial appreciation is a tough line to walk or straddle and for much of his career, Youssou N’Dour did just that. He felt an obligation to share his country with the world and forged ahead deeper into a global community. This came to a peak when he started writing “Egypt” an homage to God, Senegal and the birth of the Muslism.
It was then, in 2001 when the Twin Towers were hit and a world view towards Muslim extremists changed quite a bit. That moment was an explosion heard throughout the world and all eyes turned towards New York City and the deaths on Manhattan island. Youssou put the project on hold and didn’t release it until 2004. He felt that healing needed to happen and, slow but sure, that healing is still happening.
He went on a huge international tour with a huge band and orchestra composed of traditional and pop oriented musicians. It was here once again that he met resistance from his own people. “Egypt” is a deeply religious album sung in a traditional language most outside of Senegal cannot comprehend. So the argument of the Senegalese was why sing in concert halls with drinking, smoking etc. to audiences who can’t even understand the message being projected?
After a rigorous tour in Europe and record sales all over the world, Youssou was awarded a Grammy for best contemporary world music regarding his Egypt album.
Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love is available On-Demand, through Netflix, iTunes, etc. It’s a story of struggle, passion, and triumph and I highly recommend it to all music fans and those interested in a global culture.
On a personal note, this time last year I was in Ghana. Walking the concrete and red mud roads, taking in the brightly colored flowering trees and eating whole grilled fish. Most of all making eye contact and smiling as I allowed myself to forget the trappings of skin color and culture and just “be” within a country so different from my own.
All still images taken with my iPhone directly from the screen.