Documentaries about non-Western musicians can sometimes frustrate English-speaking viewers by leaving them wondering what singers are actually saying in their lyrics. But producer/director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi clarifies things nicely in her scrappy new doc about the politically passionate Senegalese superstar, Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love. All the singer-composer-bandleader's French and Wolof lyrics are translated into English for your edification during some powerful performances. Early on, for example, we learn that Youssou is rocking the crowd at his Dakar nightclub with heavy mbalax rhythms and lyrics recommending that slander victims take their oppressors to court.
These lyrics echo later on in the film, which focuses on the recording, release, reception, and subsequent international tour around Youssou's 2004 album, Egypt. Local religious leaders immediately condemned Egypt when it was first released in Senegal. They felt that any pop album about Islam, even this heartfelt masterpiece about Youssou's Sufi-Muslim faith recorded with a Cairo orchestra, had to be taboo. Fifty thousand cassettes were returned to Youssou's warehouse amid rumors that the singer planned to film a video featuring naked women in a famous mosque. That was nonsense, of course, and Youssou went on to win a Grammy for Egypt, which was eventually re-released successfully in Senegal with the help of Moustapha Mbaye, a local religious singer.
Vasarhelyi brings viewers up to speed with a quick introduction. Youssou has been the world's favorite African artist since his appearance on the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour, after which he cemented his reputation with "7 Seconds," his trilingual 1994 hit single with Neneh Cherry about the first innocent moments of a child's life. He's long been an even bigger local star, of course, so it's fascinating to see his reputation put in jeopardy by the Egypt debacle. His brother notes that it might have been a mistake to expect Senegalese listeners to enjoy his sacred syncretism on the radio sandwiched between "G-Spot" and "One Night Stand." It all works out in the end, however, and Youssou enjoys his first Grammy in the somewhat uncomfortable company of Senegal's president and his wife, and then sacrifices a bull for good measure.