Two Films @ Two Boots
Released simultaneously by ArtMattan—founders of the African Diaspora Film Festival, whose mission is to de-marginalize art depicting the black experience—these two docs spotlight world-music vocalists who are living legends in their respective cultures. Georges Gachot's flagging 2005 celebration Maria Bethânia: Music Is Perfume is as artistically temperate as the now silver-maned Brazilian contralto (and sister to Caetano Veloso), here seen rehearsing, performing, and waxing earth-motherly over her cinematic renditions of Tropicália and traditional pop. Whenever she (fleetingly) addresses how her impoverished fan base has only radio in their lives, Bethânia seems more comfortable reaching out to them from afar—which makes 2007's Youssou N'Dour: Return to Gorée stand apart as the humbler, more affecting, and less insular film. Pierre-Yves Borgeaud's road musical follows the Senegalese mbalax pioneer to Atlanta, New Orleans, New York City, Luxembourg, and a final concert in Dakar, each pushpin on the map tracing the history of jazz through slave routes. You may fault him for his idealism, but N'Dour's agenda seems to be simply reconnecting with his roots and wrangling collaborators (among them blind Swiss pianist Moncef Genoud and controversial poet laureate Amiri Baraka) to reinterpret his songs. Points to Bourgeaud for not whitewashing the beautifully awkward moments of cultural misunderstanding, be it the baffled gospel singers whom N'Dour asks to remove the religious lyrics, or singer-composer Pyeng Threadgill's run-in with an African woman who wants her to croon on the spot. Aaron Hillis
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