For four years, Senegalese singer, Youssou N'Dour let cameras follow him. The resulting documentary, Chai Vasarhelyi's I Bring What I Love is an intimate portrait of the international superstar, one of the most compelling and important figure in the huge slice of culture we call world music. In town for a performance at Brooklyn's BAM to coincide with a screening, N'Dour sat down with FADER contributor Simon Greenberg at a recording studio where they spoke about the importance of African music's evolution, of making the film and what makes N'Dour such a fiery performer. I Bring What I Love is playing in cities through the summer, check their site for screening information.
What do you hope that the average person can take away from your film – people who aren’t already fans?
First, with this film, I would like the audience to discover that Islam is a religion of peace, openness and liberty. In the minds of many Americans, Islam is a very closed religion.
That is very true. I told my mother this morning I would be meeting you, and she asked me if you were a religious person, as your music has such a supernatural power. I told her you were Muslim and she asked me if you would be wearing a turban!
Haha, no—we practice Islam in jeans! But yes, that is the purpose of the film, to open myself to a new public who may not know my music or my career, but also to discover Africa itself, to open a door or window to people here.
To reflect the openness of Islam itself, then.
Not just Islam, but that life itself should be open.
The mbalax rhythm and Wolof language are very cyclical in a similar way to traditional Arabic music. Was one of your original ideas for the Egypt album to play on this idea?
Well, for me Wolof is just a superb language. Everyone can hear what a beautiful language it is. I have found that for my music, mbalax and the like, to use Wolof along with these rhythms. It is very complex and you don’t find a correlation to modern or more standard music. I think this is intriguing and exotic to many ears.
And with your early music, when did you realize that you had your own vision, something more than afro-cuban dance music? Was there something that clicked for you coming from the era of African independence and nationalism?
Well I think that first, in general West African music came into its own a bit later than Central African music. In the 1950s and ’60s, when you talked about African music, you talked about Central African music. In West Africa, we were a bit stilted—you were basically speaking about something that was hanging on to Cuban music. I think that at that point we didn’t have that pride, that originality. It took a bit longer for us, because we looked to create as well from our own tradition, which in itself was very original. So, by 1970, 1975, up to the early ’80s, the music of West Africa, starting with Mali and Senegal became more interesting, with more originality and a bit more purity. So, someone like me, I was part of this movement. The other thing is that mbalax was completely different in its conception – the rhythm has no “one”, for example. This allows for the sound itself to be that much more original. And we have continued that up to this day.
So, was there music that you heard as a child that struck this kind of chord of originality with you? Someone whose music you heard that was just different than anything you had heard before?
Well, Kouyate Sory Kandia is my hero. But when I was going to and from school, I would hear Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango, James Brown, as well as Kouyate Sory Kandia—that was the music in the street.
So now in Africa, the popular music seems to be mostly reggae or rap. Your music for example, is probably not as popular with the younger generation. Do you see a connection with your childhood in this sense—the most popular music of the younger generation being something imported?
It’s very complicated, because in Africa in itself, the new generation loves modern instruments. Their ears are not trained to hear the traditional instruments. I preserve a certain originality in my music, so kids of our age know the history of our music and the traditional instruments, but its not what they really “listen” to. It’s not hip-hop or reggae. But this is all good, because both worlds of music must interact. I have confidence that children will rediscover this music. You can have a beautiful song in any genre. Young people will always adapt and fuse all the musics they are exposed to. That’s evolution. You have people who guard traditional music, and those who make new things out of the new opportunities and experiences. It has to be this way. The world of music must reflect the cacophony of modern life, the divergences of styles in current music—it’s something that’s alive.
Do you think Africa must embrace music as a creative outlet for self-expression to progress as a culture?
I think that Africa must preserve things that are part of our heritage and our culture, a part of us. History, slavery, etc—these things must not be forgotten. At the same time, Africa must evolve. Look at Akon, for example. I know his family, they are traditional musicians. But he makes songs like Americans. In this way, the two things are important.
Was this the first time someone approached you with the intention of making a feature-length film about you?
Yes, this is the first time. It was special because of the Egypt album, and all the new things I was doing with my music. It was long, but at the same time it was important to get footage from all the interesting musical and social movement around the album. I’m lucky because I am usually nervous about the camera following me, but with Chai I was very happy to let her get what she needed to. But it was a long process.
When you were in Senegal, was it ever difficult because of the attention from the public when you were being followed around with a camera?
Well, in Senegal, the camera is not something totally natural. We prepared people beforehand and told them we would be filming so that they would not be so surprised and she could be sure to get the most realistic views possible.
Was it difficult for you to have things that are personal, like family, to be filmed and know that it would be shown around the world?
Well, in general I try to avoid exposing my family and things of that nature in public places. But it wasn’t that I didn’t want it, I just didn’t want it to go too far. But this film enters into my life, into my home—it bolsters the comprehension. The history that the film shows of my family is different than something exploitative or gossipy. So finally, it helped to see how the family is important to everything.
Where does the confidence you have as a performer come from?
There are three things. First, everyone is a missionary in this life. It depends on if you choose to play along or not. I think that in some places, I am the missionary through whom others participate with the world. That’s the first thing. Also I think that people cannot be indifferent and apathetic. That is to say, a musician who makes music and speaks about things cannot say, “I should not solve problems, but only make music.” You must practice what you preach. You can’t write a song about war, for example, and say, “I am not making a judgment about this.” So I think that I take very seriously the responsibility to live up to what I say. That is what causes action. The third thing is that I think that everyone takes something from god, but they can’t do things by themselves. Pure talent is not enough. I think that, modestly, I work a lot. I have a talent, but I work a lot, and people have a certain level confidence and trust in me. Maybe, I don’t know. [Long pause] Yes, that’s it!
Do you hope this film acts as a catalyst in your career?
It already has. A lot of people understand my name now through the film, just from working on it. Now, we’ll see how the public reacts. So, automatically there is a change. I have a new public that is interested because I think that my music, along with the image—as we saw in Brooklyn, when I played after the movie screened at BAM—it was incredibly strong. After seeing the film, people have a fantastic sentiment, the communion is absolutely extraordinary—the vibe. There was something in the air, I don’t even know what. It is a true honor that people love it the way they do.
And do you think that there is something cosmic about the film premiering in the US along with Obama being in the middle east and reading from the Koran, and things of that nature?
It is something I already knew would happen. I don’t like the word “revolution”, I say “evolution.” Now, there is an evolution. This is true in politics, music, cinema, in everything. In the world, there has been a certain form of thinking which has been in effect for 25 years—we need a new form for the next 25. It’s always been like that. I know that now it has arrived. It’s not just Obama, all the world has the same vision as him.
Do you hope for the mode of thought in Senegal to follow the same path?
It’s inevitable that not only Senegal, but everywhere else will experience this evolution. It has already begun.