Youssou N’Dour is a charismatic performer from Senegal with a pan-African message. Over a three year span, director Chai Vasarhelyi documents N’Dour’s enthralling concerts on three continents, with most screen time devoted to music with a different agenda than African unity: honoring the Sufi masters who resisted colonial dominance and founded Muslim institutions in Senegal. Unfortunately, the verses repeated here most often are among the least interesting musically. They come from N’Dour’s album “Egypt,” recorded with the Fathy Salama Orchestra from Cairo. Typical of its lyrics is “Bamba, your achievements are incalculable.” This hagiographer was deemed a blasphemer in the eyes and ears of intolerant traditionalists. “Egypt” winning a World Music Grammy in 2005 may have made matters worse. If Vasarhelyi did less admiring and more reporting, we might learn about the fault lines in Muslim culture that tripped her subject. In her press notes, she says she had to kneel before N’dour’s “spiritual adviser” to get his blessing to undertake the project. Despite its intimate access, this well-shot film fails to uncover the particulars of N’dour’s personal faith nor the political objections to his singing it—to believers and unbelievers around the world. In English, French, Arabic and Wolof with English subtitles. 102m. (Bill Stamets)
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.