Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

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I recent caught Chai Vasarhelyi's Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love at a sparsely populated Magno Screening Room in Manhattan. Ran into an old friend who expressed the hope that the music would be like (1990's) Set and not (1994's) The Guide as if N'Dour's decade at the Nonesuch label hadn't existed--and who knowing that smidgen was more expert than 95 if not 100 percent of the other film critics who'd cover the film if the film got lucky. It deserves to. Just by offering onscreen translations, Vasarhelyi clarifies stuff about N'Dour that even someone as expert as moi doesn't always remember--basically, how didactic and moralistic his nevertheless catchy and kinetic songs are. We also meet his extended family, especially his stern dad and feeble, heroic 96-year-old griot grandma, who died while the film was in process--but never the wife who produced the son who eventually accompanied him to mosque. Vasarhelyi herself was new to the music and making it up as she went along, hitting N'Dour just as his 2004 Egypt project was coming to fruition. First thing I learned was something I don't recall the Nonesuch publicity of the time making clear--that the Cairo sessions where most of Egypt was recorded were pre-9/11, then held till the time seemed right years later. (Did I ask anybody that question when I covered? Didn't occur to me. I was pretty busy boning up on Sufism.) The other was that Egypt was very controversial in Senegal, where N'Dour is a major hero but where clerical hotshots condemned him for integrating religious lyrics and secular music.

Illustrating the controversy were shots of Senegalese newspaper stories, their headlines subtitled. I thought I'd been taken out of the film when I was unable to provide similar paper-and-ink documentation of the column I wrote about Egypt, but apparently the Voice finally came up with a copy, and there I was telling N'Dour how his album documented the variety of not just Islam but Sufism (next time I'll wear a nicer shirt). I wonder what the digital equivalent of this cinematic trope will be. (ZOOM IN ON KINDLE). And speaking of obsolescent cultural artifacts, the climax of the film comes when Egypt wins a Grammy. (CLOSE-UP OF GRAMMY TV COVERAGE IN DAKAR, WHERE IT IS PROBABLY ABOUT 5 IN THE MORNING. PHONE RINGS. NDOUR'S AMERICAN REP INFORMS HIM THAT HE WON GRAMMY EVEN THOUGH TV SHOW NEVER MENTIONED IT.) Somehow, the Grammy defused the Senegalese situation. There's a hilarious shot of that silly piece of brass going through the X-ray machine at the Dakar airport. There's a parade. N'Dour is invited to a state dinner with the president. He gets to duet with the nation's most prominent religious singer. (RELIGIOUS SINGER LEAVES ROOM. CAMERA FOLLOWS. HE IS WEEPING, APPARENTLY WITH JOY.)

Film crits, those who survive--worthy of coverage. Music crits--back your colleagues up or volunteer yourself. Assuming you know something about N'Dour. Which by now you probably should.

Articles, Apr. 3, 2009

Poptastic Bye-Bye EMP Lookback