Retro Cinema – Return to Goree
Youssou N’Dour: Return to Goree/Retour a Goree is among seven features at the African Diaspora Summer Film Series, three others of which treat of the influence of African music in the Caribbean and South America. These form but a foretaste of over one hundred films from thirty countries in the eclectic November-December 16th Annual ADFF “focus on the Global Black Experience.”
Balancing East Africa’s Kilwa Kisiwani and Zanzibar Town of the Muslim trade in slaves to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, on the continent’s western hump fortified Goree, a nine- by three-hundred-yard rock island, was gateway for Europe’s human traffic to New World colonies. Offshore three miles, part of a “commune” with the once autonomous region of the coast’s busiest port, Dakar, it is the opening and closing and soul destination of Swiss Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s Pan African Film and Arts Festival non-fiction winner.
The 108-minute “musical road journey” accompanies the Grammy-winning native son m’balax-and-jazz tenor humanitarian activist Youssou “You” N’Dour, currently in the news as “barred by a constitutional court from pursuing a run for president.” The musical, cultural voyage follows the Middle Passage outward to the Americas’ jazz, gospel, spirituals, blues and Afro-Cuban, on to Europe, then reverses-returns the talent assembled on that outward leg, through museum Slave House’s “Door of the Journey of No Return,” to a too brief view of the multi-ethnic group’s night concert at a slave holding castle fronting the ocean. An initial guided tour of the island’s French installations for the forced embarkation and deliberate breakup of families, is repeated just before the end performance, this time for the Harmoneers, the Atlanta Greater Israel Christian Fellowship gospel choir whom Muslim N’Dour has asked to go around the Jesus references of their repertoire.
The singer-composer travels with blind Swiss pianist Moncef Genoud, who at the 1999 Cully Jazz Festival first suggested infusing a jazz tone into the compositions. From Georgia on to a post-Katrina New Orleans where, “waiting three years for you, a great pleasure, an honor,” local Muslim percussionist Idris Muhammad and double bassist James Cammack come on board. N’Dour seeks to “encourage Americans who play jazz to interpret my songs, . . . connected with the Black Diaspora,” for he is a griot, or storyteller, and, as Josep Ndiaye puts it, “a patriot for the whole of Africa and the Diaspora.”
In New York City, amazed young Brooklyn singer Pyeng Threadgill is contacted, along with soulful harmonicist Gregoire Maret. Black activist-poet-playwright Imamu Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, reads to their studio session and has them out to a party at his New Jersey home.
Interspersed are the reflections of the musicians, especially N’Dour, who sketchily equates the lack of “standard forms” in free jazz improvisation and related expressions to African music, rather than to other, Western traditions. In Europe, once mover of the Atlantic Triangle Trade that for profit peopled the New World with displaced Africans, N’Dour is introduced to a young white audience by a government minister who intones that the future be built on knowledge of the past. American-accented trumpeter Ernie Hammes and electric guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel in the fold, after a stop in grey Geneva he returns to “Dakar, my town, my big family, Dakar lives in me, my music needs Dakar.”
There is no narrator or easy preaching, though tour guides have not shied from past horrors, and it is the singer himself who notes the interconnectedness of musical types traced back to a common origin. (The breadth of indigenous forms within Africa would have filled more than another documentary volume.)
In covering disparate locations and a rainbow of voices from each, Borgeaud does not go deep into places or persons, leaving them related through music but only loosely. Many do not emerge: Threadgill, for instance, gets scant performance and speaking time, and on her first trip to her racial homeland comes out an embarrassed second to Senegalese Taisha, who sings impromptu and asks the visitor to do so, too.
And while the middle-class Atlantan Afro-Americans are justifiably moved at their lost forebears’ humiliation and suffering, their on-the-spot harmonizing comes across film-stagey, just as they and the others are privileged foreigners even in local robes and obviously fish out of water dickering in prized greenbacks at an outdoor market in a nation where annual per capita income is $615.
The result does not focus, despite the spinal column of hunting not only the dispersion of roots, but the development of musical culture abroad and then its return to a point of origin. Although the also jazz-writer and –drummer director insists that the music is so woven in, that it cannot be separated out onto a soundtrack album, no number is shown anywhere near complete at rehearsals, jams or concerts.
The hints at “historical connectedness, a common history,” have to wait for some future treatment.