Monday, August 25, 2008

Youssou N'Dour: Return to Goree

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Afro-Jazz Documentary Retraces Slave Trade Route

Described by Rolling Stone Magazine in 2004 as “perhaps the most famous singer alive,” Grammy award-winner Youssou N'Dour has been touring the world playing his genre-defying brand of jazz since the Seventies. The Senegalese tenor is a self-described griot/storyteller/percussionist/composer/emcee and bandleader of a group which effortlessly blends elements of African, Latin, gospel, rock and pop.
Youssou is also a dedicated social activist who has been involved over the years with a variety of human rights causes, including Amnesty International, Live 8, UNICEF, and the anti-Apartheid movement. Return to Goree is a performance flick which mixes music with a history lesson about the slave trade. The movie is essentially comprised of a series of recording, rap and jam sessions in America, then Europe, and finally Africa, where the closing credits roll during a concert staged at a scenic, seaside slave castle in Dakar.
Though frequently unfocused in spots, the film accurately captures the freewheeling feeling of the lifestyle of a roaming troubadour capable of calling anyplace he hangs his fez home. As he perambulates the planet, Youssou gradually amasses a multi-ethnic ensemble of accompanists. By the time of the big finale, among his sidemen are drummer Idris Muhammad and vocalist Pyeng Threadgill.
However, as important as the tunes are the contributors’ (including poet Amiri Baraka’s) insights about the Middle Passage and the toll that slavery took on displaced Africans throughout the diaspora. Fortunately, despite the tragedy which decimated the continent’s population for several centuries, the music in Return to Goree stands as a testament to the fact that folks figured a way to nourish their souls and thus somehow survive in the face of a cruel system of absolute subjugation determined to crush their spirits at every turn.
Listening to a tour guide positioned before the infamous “Door to the Journey of No Return” talk about how black families were deliberately separated at that spot, with the mother being sent, say, to Brazil, the father to Louisiana, and the children scattered among Haiti, Cuba and the Antilles, this profound picture chillingly conveys a palpable sense of what being a direct victim of the evil institution might have felt like and why the fallout persists to this day like the proverbial ripples on a pond.

Excellent (3.5 stars)
In French and English with subtitles.
Running time: 108 minutes
Studio: ArtMattan Productions

To see a trailer of Youssou N'Dour, visit:

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