Friday, 22 February 2008

GFF Review: Youssou N'Dour: Return to Goree - by Emma J. Lennox

Director: Pierre Yves Borgeaud
Running time: 110 mins

“At the bottom of the Atlantic ocean there is a rail road, made of human bones; black ivory, black ivory” The potent words of American poet, Amiri Baraka are a powerful example that nothing can begin to comprehend the history of slavery, suppression and inhumanity like music, poetry, community and love. Youssou N'Dour discovers all of these on a journey which takes him around America and back to his native Senegal on a mission to reunite the black diaspora with its history.

Goree is the infamous island off the coast of Dakar which was used as a departure point for the slave trade for America and Europe. It's House of Slaves, built in 1784 still stands to this day and remains testimony to the sad history and ravaged African west coast. Yet triumphantly it is in the ruins of these cramped quarters that N'Dour has planned a concert uniting Americans with Africa, jazz with mbalax, and the present with its past.

On search for the talent who will bring different elements to the musical experience, N'Dour picks up gospel singers in Atalanta, and jazz musicians in New Orleans and New York city. The individuals he meets have their own personal histories to consider, as well as that of the music they perform. A diegesis of black music is explored in analytical and historical context with discoveries of some rhythms starting in Senegalese tradition and winding up in the streets of New Orleans' Mardi Gras. Percussionist Idris Muhammed has played for hundreds of musicians from Sam Cooke to Herbie Hancock and his expertise on rhythm is unparalleled, but even he seems to have a spiritual awakening on visiting Dakar and hearing the local djembe players.

There is ecstatic excitement when the various musicians are finally brought to their destination concert, in particular the three gospel singing Turner brothers who see it as a kind of 'homecoming'. Early on there is some tension when N'Dour insists that the brothers don't add a Christian perspective to his songs and an uncomfortable moment follows when the Moslem N'Dour enters the Atalanta church to perform. The Turners' journey to Goree, however, creates perhaps the most poignant scene in the documentary when they are given the tour of the House of Slaves. Standing by a portal which opens directly onto the vast ocean and the Americas beyond, they sing in harmony 'Return to Glory'. Amidst the stone walls which were used to house captured Africans for centuries this song somehow breaks down the fortress with their strength of voice and resolution. To see and hear these three proud African-Americans belting out gospel in the confined icon of the slave trade seems like victory.

The music is beautiful, not just because of the strength of the performances but because they are still amplified and resonate with hardships and the hope of overcoming it. The pain of a people has been distilled over centuries into keyboards, strings and vocal chords which continues to emote in neighbourhoods and communities world wide and is palpable here in the cinema auditorium. The power of music to unite is Return to Goree's central message, but the power to move is its welcome effect.

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