Today marks the opening of two noteworthy documentaries at the Pioneer Theater in New York about the African diaspora experience in music. “Youssou N’Dour: Return to Goree” chronicles the great Senegalese singer’s attempt to bond with African-American musicians in a kind of pilgrimage to the New World, while “Maria Bethania: Music is Perfume” is an exploration of the unique esthetic of one of Brazil’s most respected Tropicalismo artists. Both films originally premiered at New York’s African Diaspora Film Festival and we are fortunate to be able to see them now.
Located near Dakar, Senegal, the island of Gorée was one of West Africa’s major slavery depots. The film begins with N’Dour reflecting on the great injustice done to his homeland and his hopes for a new project involving various musicians whose ancestors might have departed from this terrible place. He will visit the New World to gather together a diverse group of musicians who share a common identification with Mother Africa.
After being joined in Senegal by his pianist Moncef Genoud, a blind Frenchman born in Tunisia, the two depart for the U.S.-the first stop Atlanta, Georgia. There they meet the Harmony Harmoneers, a local gospel group that he watches performing in church. Despite his affinity for their music, he stresses the need to avoid references to Jesus in their performances together. The songs that he is recruiting fellow African descendants to sing with him have to do with children getting a good education, not being saved by Jesus. Without making any obvious points about their religious differences, we see Youssou praying toward Mecca in his hotel room later.
Next stop is New Orleans, where N’Dour looks up drummer Idris Muhammad and bass player James Cammack. Muhammad, a devout Muslim like N’Dour, is like a number of American jazz musicians who were drawn to a religion in which racial discrimination does not tend to rear its ugly head. The enlarged group now wends its way to New York, where they pick up jazz vocalist Pyeng Threadgill, who is the daughter of avant-garde musician Henry Threadgill. A reception for Youssou N’Dour includes a special guest, Amiri Baraka, who reflects on the importance of African identity for him when he became politicized in the 1960s.
Ultimately the musicians arrive back in Dakar where they hear a local griot lecture on the injustices committed at Gorée. Idris Muhammad and Pyeng Threadgill are shown bonding with local musicians and ordinary citizens.
Throughout the film, we see Youssou N’Dour in performance in a setting somewhat different from the customary Afropop context. He has obviously developed a new affinity for jazz and meshes well with his ad hoc band gathered together for the occasion. The band is eventually joined by the Harmony Harmoneers in a performance that illustrates how music is the universal vocabulary of humanity.
“Maria Bethânia: Music is Perfume” consists of interviews with this “musician’s musician” and some of Brazil’s top artists, including her brother Caetano Veloso.
Maria Bethânia was born Vianna Telles Veloso in 1946 but drew the stage name of Maria Bethânia, the title of a traditional song, from a hat. Like other musicians in the Tropicalismo movement, she has a very strong identification with Africa and progressive politics.
The Velosos hail from Bahia, Brazil, which is the birthplace of the samba and where African religious singing and dancing is still practiced. The movie shows local residents from her hometown of Santo Amaro celebrating Mardi Gras. Despite the sometimes ethereal quality of her songs, there is always a strong connection to her African roots.
The movie includes interviews with Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Nana Caymmi, three of the country’s great musicians. Their attitude toward Maria Bethânia borders on reverence.
For a intimate look at two of the world’s great musical interpreters of the African heritage, pay a visit to the Pioneer Theater in New York.