Singer and now film star Youssou N’Dour tells Ed Stocker how it all began in Africa.
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Youssou N’Dour clearly likes to keep his fans on their toes. Over an illustrious career, the Senegalese star has had a stab at everything from international pop stardom to Islamic praise singing. Add to an already packed CV his rigorous touring, pro bono charity work, media empire and presumed political interests, and it’s a wonder he has time for much else. Yet this autumn sees the release of Return to Gorée, a documentary that captures an energetic Youssou travelling along former transatlantic slave routes, exploring links between African music and the sounds of the diaspora.
Return to Gorée marks Youssou’s second major cinematic project in as many years, both focused on slavery. As the UK celebrated 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade in 2007, it seemed apt that Africa’s most high-profile celebrity should be involved. He made his acting debut that year, starring as freed slave Olaudah Equiano in Amazing Grace, a film charting the run-up to the 1807 Slave Trade Act. “It’s an important date that marked the end of one of the worst things that human beings were responsible for,” he asserts. “I think all future generations should continue to learn this at school. Yet we mustn’t remain fixated by it – the world has changed. But slavery, Nazism and ethnic wars existed and continue to exist today, and we must always be aware.”
Yet in Gorée the emphasis is on musical celebration rather than terse social or political statements about slavery. It’s an attempt to draw on a positive cultural legacy of the trade and use it to connect with communities all over the world. Youssou travels from New Orleans to New York in the US, collaborating with jazz musicians and a gospel choir, before moving on to Europe, exploring musical similarities and reinterpreting his songs as jazz arrangements. For African music mutated into jazz after it had travelled over to the Americas before being reinvented as contemporary R&B and hip-hop. And jazz, like African music, doesn’t obey set rules, allowing for collaborations on an equal footing.

Directed by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, the film is the brainchild of producer Emmanuel Getaz and Tunisian-born, Swiss-raised jazz musician Moncef Genoud. The latter had played with Youssou at the Cully Jazz Festival in Switzerland and wanted him to provide the musical continuity. Youssou admits to not knowing many of the musicians until he was introduced to them before filming. But never one to shirk from a challenge, he launched himself into the project wholeheartedly.

Return to Gorée opens and closes on the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal, significant for being a major transit island during slavery. It was from here that scores of African slaves embarked on galley ships across the Atlantic for the New World. Many of them didn’t survive the subhuman conditions onboard during the voyage. It’s here that Youssou meets Joseph Ndiaye, curator of the islands’ slavery museum. He’s someone who seems to have greatly inspired Youssou during filming. “Joseph is a great man and I have a huge amount of respect for him,” he says. “He’s been explaining and bringing alive the history of Gorée for so many years. He’s both courageous and talented because he never tells the same story the same way, even though he’s been doing it every day for decades!”
But perhaps the most moving part of the film is the ‘return’ , when Youssou brings the American and European musicians back to Africa. Most of them have never set foot on the continent before and it’s an emotional experience: New Orleans musician Idris Muhammad jams with Gorée drummers, telling them “My rhythms, they come from you,” while one of the Harmony Harmoneers gospel choir members exclaims “It’s good to be home!”
Return to Gorée is a film that celebrates similarities not differences – an ideal Youssou N’Dour has always strived to achieve through his records. The film’s musicians are from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds and yet there’s a common musical appreciation. Gorée doesn’t ram crude facts about the slave trade down viewers’ throats (this has been done before), yet is equally powerful. It’s a quietly affirming film demonstrating the significance of Africa in shaping the music of the diaspora and, by proxy, contemporary global culture. As Youssou says: “We brought jazz back to its birthplace.”