Senegalese superstar Youssou Ndour is the subject of a revealing new documentary premiering at TIFF this weekend.
YOUSSOU NDOUR: I BRING WHAT I LOVE SPEC D: Chai Vasarhelyi. 102 min. U.S. Ryerson, Saturday (September 6), 3 pm; AMC 7, Sunday (September 7), 3 pm; Scotiabank Theatre 4, September 13, 3:45 pm.
YOUSSOU NDOUR and LE SUPER ETOILE DE DAKAR performing at Yonge-Dundas Square, Saturday (September 6), 8:30 pm. Free. Rating: NNNN
Amidst all the hubbub this week about which overpaid Hollywood A-listers will be gracing our fine city, one of the most exciting "gets" of the Toronto International Film Festival has gone largely unnoticed.
That's not to say that the prospect of Brad Pitt reading a newspaper in the Annex isn't thrilling, but it should also be noted that Youssou Ndour, one of the planet's most important activist-musicians, is flying in from Senegal with his incredible band, Le Super Etoile de Dakar, to play a free show at Yonge-Dundas Square coinciding with the world- premiere screening of the documentary Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love.
What first appears to be a conventional film biography of the Senegalese superstar reveals an entirely different dimension when filmmaker Chai Vasarhelyi uses the production and promotion of Ndour's 2004 Egypt album as a jump-off point for a much deeper, more personal look at how his family life and religious beliefs contribute to his creative process.
"When you talk about music in Africa, Youssou Ndour is one of the first names that comes up," says Vasarhelyi from Colorado. "He's among the leading figures on the world stage, and many people are familiar with his songs, yet very little seems to be known about the man behind them.
"But I wasn't interested in doing a straight bio film. What sealed the deal for me was hearing what Youssou was doing on his Egypt album. The idea of recording a celebration of his Muslim faith was such a change in direction for him, and coming just two years after 9/11, it seemed like a very brave choice."
Because the film begins with a lengthy introduction to Ndour and recounts his past achievements, it appears what you're in for is a typical music documentary offering nothing more than a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of the Egypt album. However, once the disc hits the streets, the film takes a dramatic turn, suddenly caught up in a whirlwind of religious/political intrigue where what might happen next is no longer a foregone conclusion.
Along with the beautiful cinematography, including some amazing footage of prayer ceremonies at the Great Mosque in the holy city of Touba, the film's great success is Vasarhelyi's ability to keep a tight grip on the narrative through many turns without losing sight of the central figure or the essential human element.
Scenes of Ndour hanging out with Bono and speaking at U.S. Congressional hearings on behalf of developing nations may be impressive. But Ndour looking anxious about visiting his parents and admitting to still feeling like a 15-year-old when speaking with his father is what really hits home.
"The film reveals a lot about my life, my music and my religion in a way that's very positive," says Ndour. "For me, it was very powerful experience. I can tell you that seeing some of the scenes with my family, particularly my grandmother, made me cry.
"I learned a lot about myself from watching the film. You know what you're doing while you're doing it, but when there are many events happening quickly, you're not always paying attention to everything. My intention was to make a very personal recording, but I discovered there was much more to this music and the message than I first thought."
Knowing that every album he releases instantly becomes the topic of heated debate from marketplaces to radio shows across West Africa, Ndour admits that the controversy in Dakar surrounding his Egypt album wasn't entirely shocking. He concedes that the potential for a fierce negative reaction wasn't included in the marketing plan.
"Because I was dealing with things about religion which people don't talk about openly, I expected there would be some confusion. I was hopeful that these songs might bring positive change, but everything quickly became complicated.
"Many people in Senegal think Youssou Ndour is their Youssou Ndour and I should be doing what they want. But when I began to travel outside of Africa, things began to change. I'd hear different sounds and feel different vibes which I would try to bring to my music. Each time I release a new album, people in Senegal would initially reject it but eventually they come to appreciate it.
"If you feel passionately about your music, you must be determined to follow through with what you really believe in. I have to do what I feel is right."
For documentary filmmaker Chai Vasarhelyi, it was important that I Bring What I Love be more than a conventional music bio flick.
Among the more striking images in the film are the prayer ceremonies in Senegal's sacred city of Touba. You have to wonder how an outsider like Vasarhelyi - a non-muslim woman - was able to capture the never-before-seen footage.
Showing pilgrims praying at the Great Mosque in a commercially released film could touch off a controversy back in Senegal yet Youssou Ndour doesn't forsee any problems.
Following the film's Saturday screening at TIFF, Ndour will be joined by the classic line-up of his group Le Super Etoile for a free performance at Yonge-Dundas Square. Doing a show after the film has apparently given Ndour an idea of how best to promote his new documentary across North America.