Nat Geo Music Catches Up With Senegalese Superstar Youssou N'Dour And Filmaker Chai Vasarhelyi

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Thursday July 02, 2009

Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour may be Africa’s greatest living pop star. A multi-platinum selling Grammy-winner, N’dour is just as well-known these days for his philanthropic work alongside the likes of Bono and Bill Gates. And while he may not be a household name here in the States yet, a recently-released documentary film may change that very soon.

Directed by American filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, I Bring What I Love tells the story of N’Dour’s remarkable 2004 concept album, Egypt. A departure from his usual Afropop sound, Egypt was conceived as celebration of the peaceful, tolerant and creative side of Islam. A devout Muslim himself, N’Dour wanted to counter the negative, post-9/11 images of his religion, and he enlisted the help of Egyptian composer Fathy Salama and his orchestra to realize his vision. The resulting album was hailed as a triumph in Europe and the U.S. – but stirred up a surprising controversy at home, where local religious leaders didn’t look kindly on N’Dour’s unprecedented mixture of popular music and religious praise songs.

Five years in the making, Vasarhelyi’s film deftly relates the story of Egypt and the toll it took on N’Dour and his family – while exploring the same themes of tolerance, respect and dialogue between the West and the Islamic world that were originally raised by the album. It’s a winning, clear-eyed account of how music, religion and celebrity intersect in contemporary Africa – and a pretty good Youssou N’Dour biopic in the bargain.

Nat Geo Music caught up with both the singer and the filmaker while they were in New York for I Bring What I Love’s theatrical release.

Read the entire Tom Prior interview here