Courtesy of HUGO BERKELEY
I Bring What I Love
In 2004, African singer Youssou N’dour released “Egypt,” an album shunned by N’dour’s native country of Senegal. Countless disk jockeys and radio stations banned the record, and stores in the country returned copies of the cassettes, refusing to sell them. Still, in 1994, N’dour became the first African artist to record a platinum-selling record, even though sales for “Egypt” in Senegal were dismal. The family of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a Senegalese pacifist anti-colonial leader whom N’dour sang about on the album, even threatened legal action against him.
Sadly, all of this outrage stemmed from an album meant to portray a meaningful image of Muslim traditions in Senegal, rooted in peace and understanding. The album consists of songs containing lyrics like “Don’t worry about any foe/Praise that man/He is your grandfather” and “For me, all I want is peace/Let us be of one mother.” Why the controversy?
This is the question at the center of “I Bring What I Love.” Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the documentary chronicles the rise of N’dour, who was born into a family of traditional Senegalese singers and storytellers called Griots. N’dour ran away from home and began his career at the age of 14, after his father denounced his musical ambitions. N’dour took part in collaborations with Etoile de Dakar and became huge across the continent. He later founded Mbalax, a fusion of African and Caribbean rhythms.
Distressed by fractured and often distorted worldwide images of Islam, N’dour felt compelled to articulate a unique Senegalese Muslim voice through music promoting the tenets of unity and peace. Many in Senegal found N’dour’s mixture of religious material with pop music to be profane. In one scene of the film, a record executive at N’dour’s label explains to “Egypt’s” promoters that the release of the record was handled incorrectly in Senegal.
“You can’t have a song called ‘G-Spot’ or ‘One Night Stand’ on the radio, then play ‘Allah, Allah,’” he said in “I Bring What I Love.”
The difference between the album’s receptions in Senegal and in Europe, as well as the United States, is astounding to watch. N’dour is received like a rock star in places like Amsterdam and Brussels, and audiences in Dublin happily abstain from drinking when Egyptian members of N’dour’s band refuse to play in the presence of alcohol.
In such scenes, the impact of Youssou N’dour and his essentially simple message of understanding is obvious. The music is able to negotiate bridges between culture and religion in a way that eventually caught the eye of the Grammy Awards. It is a weird thrill to watch N’dour on the big screen as he anxiously watches the live awards show in a crowded hotel room, bombarded with images of Jennifer Lopez and John Legend.
The documentary also offers a rare, non-political view into Islamic traditions rooted in tolerance and love. Vasarhelyi introduces a very refreshing documentary into a culture where Islam often serves as shorthand for “extremism.”
“I Bring What I Love” opens Friday, Oct. 9, at the Avalon Theatre.