One may marvel at the tragically apt synchronicity achieved in releasing Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love roughly one week after President Obama’s Koran recitation before a Palestinian audience in Cairo—though the connection between the two events is not immediately limpid. For those unaware: N’Dour is a Senegalese “Sufi-star,” quite removed (at least geographically) from the Muslim maelstrom of the Middle East, and best known to the U.S. for warbling in Wolof atop the ending vamp of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Furthermore, his music’s universally applauded blend of socio-political frustration and preservation (he sings in the all-but-extinct griot style, an African tradition of melodic announcement inherited from his grandmother) seems at a cursory glance rather fecund fodder for a Western-bound documentary; certainly director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi captures something of the resilient passion of world music by recounting N’Dour’s ascent from the slum-clubs of Senegal to the multi-track, Daniel Lanois studios of Afro-European pop.
It becomes gratingly obvious fairly early on, however, that N’Dour’s faith and nationality reside within the many nebulous blind spots of occidental awareness, to the point where filmed rituals virtually demand a glossary. That the offered text on such holy institutions as Ramadan, rendered in a garishly calligraphic font against inanely faux-hieroglyphs, could have been pilfered from Wikipedia is only slightly less embarrassing than the fact that it holds our ignorant attention (Discovery Channel conditioning, no doubt).
When Vasarhelyi isn’t scrambling to fill us in on this intersection between two essentially alien cultures, she’s mostly capturing N’Dour on stage during the tour for his album Egypt, an ill-received collection of Arab-tinged songs with pious lyrics renounced as Salman Rushdie-grade blasphemy across the African-Islamic diaspora. This copious concert footage—what should be the cornerstone of any self-respecting musician doc—wobbly illustrates N’Dour’s irrepressible charisma but suffers from the specificity of the singer’s milieu. Translated lyrics devoted to legions of martyred African leaders and prophets make one pine for the days of VH1’s Pop-Up Video, and force us to rather condescendingly beam at N’Dour’s sweaty, ionic delivery (isn’t it cute? He seems to really care about these dead folks!).
But most beguiling are the handful of moments devoted to N’Dour’s activism. During one interview, the singer acidly replies that he feels his duty is to inform the world that Africa is not only about poverty. Of course it isn’t: Suffering-obsessed celebrities like Bono have their giddy pick of humanitarian issues on the continent, including malaria, HIV, and rampant superstition-provoked abuse such as the AIDS virgin rape myth and female circumcision. But we get the sense that N’Dour is primarily referring to promoting the importance of Islam with this mission statement (though trumpeting the prevalence of Allah-worship in his homeland is not likely the best path to Western sympathy or extradited relief), and the intense difficulty of cross-cultural communication therein (he and his demographic neither fit the American image of African tribesmen nor devout Muslims, and instead float in a quizzical no-man’s-limbo where their laments cannot be properly comprehended).
Thus, if Vasarhelyi fails to sufficiently demystify N’Dour’s heritage with her honest portrait, it’s a failure for which we must accept part of the blame—at least until the patronizing denouement, where the controversial Egypt record wins a Grammy and all is instantaneously forgiven across Senegal. As much as America enjoys masturbatory daydreams wherein it plays global dues ex machina, I Bring What I Love—as with Obama’s uneasy quotes from the other Abrahamic holy book—suggests that the few bridges existing between the secular West and the Muslim East grow flimsier and more precarious to traverse by the day. And all the symbolic gestures of distant appreciation—the Grammies and Paul Simon benefits—we have to offer Africa, let alone Palestine, are unlikely to inch us any nearer to meaningful dialogue.