Sunday, May 24, 2009


Swiss film-maker Pierre-Yves Borgeaud's documentary follows Youssou N'Dour's journey gathering together a group of jazz musicians for a re-interpretation of his songs for a concert on the former slave transit centre off the coast of Senegal, and it's as modest and human a film as the approach to the project of the Senegalese singer himself. There's an affecting layered approach to the narrative with local cultural touches being interleaved with shots of rehearsals and live performances as the repertoire (chiefly comprising established N'Dour songs) is moulded and rearranged for a jazz setting. We are taken first to the island itself and a brief conversation between Youssou and charismatic Gorée museum curator Boubacar Joseph NDiaye about the historical and musical links between Africa and the Americas, and then onwards through Atlanta, New Orleans, New York, Luxembourg and the Senegalese capital Dakar as the various ensemble members are accumulated for the final concert performance on Gorée Island. Musical similarities are investigated (such as the link between West African Assiko rhythms and those of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans) but not over emphasised, and there are some touching 'over the shoulder' glimpses of cultural divides - Atlanta gospel singers who are tasked with toning down mentions of God in their song, and the sudden nervousness of a previously confident New York vocalist Pyeng Threadgill when she is asked for an impromptu off-stage song by a Senegalese girl being two of the more charming vignettes of a gathering of culturally disparate but musically empathetic group of artists. Moncef Genoud is the relatively unsung hero of the film, and of the project as a whole. It was the Swiss pianist of Tunisian birth who ten years ago identified the possibilities available through marrying Youssou's open mbalax style with the similarly loose-structured jazz format, and whose musical sympathies lie most comfortably with the musicians the two men subsequently garner together. A match made in ersatz jazz supper-club hell? It has to be said that not all of it works for the non-jazz enthusiast, but Genoud has a finely tuned ear for identifying musicians that have an African feel to their playing and for giving ample space to all components of an ensemble and his spacious, light-touch arrangements also bring out the soulful side of N'Dour's singing so there is still much left to admire. Naturally, there's a more serious thread running through the narrative, that of the effect of the three-centuries old slave trade on African-American consciousness and what Youssou describes as the loss of demographic equilibrium that has since resulted in stunted development in many parts of Africa. NDiaye and New York writer Amiri Baraka (formerly Le Roi Jones) and others give more visceral, angry vent to those topics, but overall the impression one is left with is a mood of optimism and hope as black America and the Western world as a whole responds to the initiatives of influential Africans such as Youssou N'Dour.There's a bonus DVD which includes extended interviews with many key protaganists as well as the concert performance, which comprises one part straight modern jazz tunes to two-parts re-worked Youssou songs (Fital and Diabaram in particular are impressively reincarnated as jazz numbers), which at 50 minutes in length makes for a pleasant, undemanding diversion down one of the great man's many musical avenues.

1 comment:

Nick Pourgourides said...

Hi Con,

Thanks for the review of RETURN TO GOREE on the site.

Please contact me through my email address below though and I can supply you with the correct artwork to the DVD, as the current one online is purely a preliminary design.

With best wishes,

Nick Pourgourides
Axiom Films