Songwriter/vocalist Youssou Ndour is a major African superstar, particularly in his home country of Senegal. I, like many Americans (including filmmaker Chai Vasarhelyi), was unfamiliar with him and the extent of his influence, both musical and cultural. A few years ago Vasarhelyi, a New York-based filmmaker, wanted to make an uplifting film about Africa, and had been casting about for a focus. She thought the realm of music might be a starting place, and the name (and music of) Youssou Ndour kept coming up in her research. Thus was born the documentary Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love.
I've said I was unfamiliar with Ndour, but that turns out not to be entirely true: I was, in fact, familiar with his melodious, lilting, magical voice thanks to a memorable duet with Peter Gabriel on the song "In Your Eyes." Vasarhelyi's film takes the viewer on an emotional, transformative, behind-the-scenes journey into the life of Ndour, during a period when his career was in turmoil as a result of a courageous creative decision.
Ndour's Egypt is a collection of faith-based songs blending Senegalese musical stylings with those of northern Africa. The compilation of songs -- whose lyrics are a retelling of the stories of important figures in Senegalese Sufism -- ended up bringing him closer to the same local Muslim brotherhood which at first threatened to expunge him. But the journey to this outcome was far from a foregone conclusion, and was fraught with complications that would test the convictions of Ndour's family, fan base, and business associates.
Vasarhelyi's film follows Youssou Ndour as he stages concerts and performs around the world -- including an appearance at a public house in Dublin, Ireland where there's a bit of a ruckus when it's determined that he and his band will not be performing until all the patrons dispose of their alcoholic beverages. It also documents family visits, business meetings, and religious observances. Ndour makes a pilgrimage -- along with thousands of other Senegalese -- to the holy city of Touba; Vasarhelyi and her camera person make the same pilgrimage, but on a disconnected parallel path (because Ndour didn't want to be perceived as having secularized the event). The film crew came away with unprecedented footage of religious observances in the holy city.
When the Egypt album receives a Grammy, Senegalese hearts begin to soften towards the controversial project, leading to a groundbreaking collaboration between a revered Senegalese religious singer and the king of Senegalese pop. It's a touching moment, the emotional high point of the film.
We spoke with Chai Vasarhelyi when she visited the Angelika in Dallas for the local premiere of her film. Here is a transcript of our conversation:
PegNews: How did you come up with the idea for the film? And how did you decide on Youssou Ndour as your subject?
Chai: I was interested in making an uplifting film about Africa, and music was where I started. And when you start there, Youssou's name came up.
I only really got to know the music about six months before I began making the film.
I still wasn't sure, and then I met him in person. I saw him perform, and it's an amazing experience, but I wasn't sure. It's such a big commitment to make these films, and when he shared with me the Egypt album I knew at that moment that this was a film I really wanted to make, and that it was important, and that here was a man who was in the middle of a very important turning point in his life.
P: At first, when I began watching the film, I wasn't familiar with who Youssou was, but then I heard the Peter Gabriel "In Your Eyes" performance tape and went: "Oh, it's that guy!" His voice was slightly familiar, but I couldn't place it.
C: Absolutely. The yodelling at the end of "In Your Eyes." I think most Americans have heard Youssou's voice but never knew it was him.
P: So you spent two years making the film. Is that right?
P: You've said you wanted to make an uplifting film about Africa. Were there times during this two year period when you worried that you might have chosen incorrectly? Did you have any doubts during this whole period.
C: Of course. I think every filmmaker should. You like dig yourself into a hole and your job is to dig yourself out of it. But there's something about Youssou himself that is truly inspiring, and so at the end of the day when nothing worked ...
Like the most difficult part was this year when it was completely unresolved what would happen. And no one was speaking about these issues in Senegal, and meanwhile everyone abroad was very happy and it was very meaningful, and stuff was unfolding in front of the camera, but then you would go home to Senegal and it would be like radio silence. It was like a taboo subject.
The controversy in Senegal -- basically, the film turned much more personal. And that time I spent pretty much with his family, and with him. And it's the first time he's ever opened up like this in front of the camera. And I think it's actually what the most special part of the film is.
And so there's times when you doubt. Especially financing an independent film - talking about an African Muslim? -- you feel like you're the most unpopular person in the room. Adding charm helps, but it's still a very tough subject.
And he (Youssou) so consistently stands up for what he believes in. If you look at the old songs -- like even the Peter Gabriel "In Your Eyes" -- he's singing "if you want to educate your people, build a school." That's what Youssou's singing, Peter's singing something completely different. And that's what really moved me.
P: That's interesting. His voice is so beautiful that you really don't care about the lyrics. From (English-speaking) standpoint. But when I started seeing the translation, it was a real eye-opener. They were stories -- they were basically stories.
So -- what did you do to get him (Youssou) to allow you all this access. Because he's like the superstar of Senegal.
C: I was very persistent. The pace of his life is crazy. I mean he's in Davos one day, and he's in like rural Mauritania the next. It's really hard to conceive of, how he crosses between the worlds. Like rubbing elbows with Bill Gates, and then like in the poorest parts of Africa.
And so basically we met, we talked (about the film). I hadn't heard "Egypt" yet. I met his management and the record label, they all thought it was a great idea. And he was like "oh, O.K." And I didn't get one step further.
So then I knew he was touring in Spain. I got on a plane to Spain and I snuck backstage. Literally, like around the bouncer. And that's when he saw me, he like invited me to eat with the band. And he shared with me the Egypt album, and that was like -- that fire.
And even in sharing that album with me, I knew he was telling me that there's a real story here. And that was really something special. And then I didn't hear from him.
So finally I met a guy who was like "I'm Youssou's former bodyguard. Buy me a ticket to Dakar and I'll get you in front of Youssou."
Meanwhile he'd never said no, and I arrive in Dakar, six hours later I'm on a bus with the band. Thirteen hours later I'm on Matam, which is on the border with Mauritania. I spent the entire day with the band. They didn't know me, Youssou was nowhere to be found, and then ... I never saw another show like that, it was basically build a stage in the middle of nowhere. It was a UNICEF sponsored concert against malaria, and children had walked for miles. Miles. Like, you couldn't see the end of them. The only water available was in bags. Just to see how much he meant to them really moved me.
And then, 2 o'clock in the morning, someone was like "Chai, come on, Youssou's ready," I get ushered back to where his SUV is, the door opens, and he looks at me and he laughs. He had no idea it was me (from their previous conversation about the film). He thought it was just an American journalist. He had no idea that this girl had come.
And the next day he introduced me to his spiritual guide who blessed the project, and he signed the contract.
Of course, like a true New Yorker, I was like "you can't film unless we have a contract." And then three weeks later, it began.
P: Amazing. It could easily not have happened, right?
C: Yeah, but also there were a lot of people who wanted to make that film. What was unusual was the fact that -- 'cause he's very famous everywhere else in the world -- and I was actually given a hard time by a lot of these older male European directors, who knew his music for a long time and were big fans.
And for me I thought it was important to bring a fresh perspective. I thought there was something about coming from a stance where you were like, "I didn't know him before," that could open up -- you know, if I did my due diligence in my research and make an in-depth film -- I could open up his story to an American audience. And an international audience, too.
P: And where has the film played so far?
C: It's being released theatrically across Europe. Here it opened in New York very well, and we've got ten prints and they kind of make their way across. San Francisco, the bay area, L.A. -- we're opening three cities in Texas.
P: Youssou has seen it, I'm sure.
C: Yes, he's been very involved in the promotion, too. He loves the film. He was really surprised by the religious images. He didn't know that we had managed to get that access (i.e., filming inside a mosque during worship). It was one of those things where it was still very delicate between him and Touba -- so he said "never mention my name, just go and figure it out." (re. her access to the holy city during pilgrimage). And so he was really moved by that.
The film is special, and it's also something bigger than him. There's something that's very organic about the film, and the Egypt album.
And it's great when he promotes it, because that's the real deal.
P: I got the sense ... the religious context in the songs in the Egypt project ... it struck me that it was similar to what Jesus Christ Superstar was in the Western world. Only far more controversial.
C: I think there are certain taboo subjects. I'm not an expert on Islam. I do know the specificity of what happened with Youssou.
Ramadan is traditionally a time of spiritual reflection, you withdraw from worldly activities. Youssou Ndour owns a nightclub. He closes the nightclub. He decided to release an album during Ramadan. To present this music as spiritual music. And that really challenged how people thought about music.
And then what happened -- like any celebrity, I think, anywhere -- is like overnight there's like crazy gossip. There were these radio talk shows and people were and saying "Oh, we saw Youssou with naked women in a mosque." Literally! And then 25,000 cassettes were returned by the street vendors. 'Cause they just didn't want it in there stalls. And the TV stations took the ads off the air. Never letting them (Youssou's agents) know. It's not like there was a real discussion about it.
And then finally a sect of the brotherhood -- not the main part -- threatened to sue him. Which is interesting too, 'cause it's a secular state, so it's not punishable by law, but they wanted to sue him. It's the idea that they could sue him for desecrating the memory of the saint.
What happened in Youssou's case was a tragedy, a real misunderstanding. 'Cause no one even listened to the album.
At the end of the day, when the crazy things that happened happened -- with the Grammy, which was like a gold medal, really...
P: Did that (the Grammy) soften people's hearts and open up the floodgates? Is that what did it, the Grammy?
C: The Grammy forced a recontextualization of the album. You've gotta kind of divorce it from the Grammy context, even though it's hard to do that. Like no one knew what a Grammy was. It was like bringing home an Olympic gold medal. And it was the first time this major international honor had been received by a Senegalese national. And that was huge.
I think the attention made people listen to the album. And once you listen to the album, you understand it.
But I can't (over)stress the importance of that religious singer, Moustapha Mbaye, (who collaborates with Youssou near the end of the film). He is Senegal's most celebrated religious singer. He's never been in a recording studio before. So when he decided to cross that line, and record a song to the prophet Mohammed with Youssou Ndour, that was like ... saying it was O.K., what Youssou was doing. And that, I think, really thawed things.
And so it was like the Grammy gave him an opportunity to do that, but it was like Moustafa's endorsement that was like a big deal.
P: What message do you want your film to bring to Western audiences?
C: I'm always afraid I sound like I'm preaching, or it's like medicine. Because the point of the film is like it's a moving emotional journey. This is a story about a Senegalese man who is ... a wonderful example to everyone, no matter where you live. Of how, from the most humble of origins, you can live successfully by your convictions and change your circumstances and also ... change your community.
And that's the message. That's what I took away from him, and I tried to make that film that opened it up.