Published Oct 24, 2013German jazz trumpeter Volker Goetze hasn't just made a documentary celebrating the remarkable talents of Senegalese Kora master Ablaye Cissoko. Even if that were the extent of the project's scope, it would be well worth seeing; Cissoko is a rare virtuosic talent whose ability is exceeded only by the depth of his passion. His every note embodies exactly what people mean when they speak of transcendence in music.
Goetze's first stab at directing a feature documentary illuminates the vital, revered role of the master musician in West African culture. This position of respect and influence is that of the griot. Traditionally, the griot serves as historian and political and spiritual advisor to the people, as well as entertainer. In times of conflict, these venerated minstrels would play to inspire the warriors in battle. Much like nobility (even interbreeding in the past), this multifaceted discipline is passed down through bloodlines.
Cissoko's late father,Bouba, to whom the film is dedicated, had four wives and more than 20 children. All of them are musicians and most of them make appearances during the many public performances filmed in Cissoko's home village. These group sessions are joyous and moving in a way that defies description. Words simply cannot convey the camaraderie and unadulterated happiness of this musical family in the throws of collaboration. The music must be heard; the profound love adorning their faces during the act of expression must be seen.
Having an intimate understanding of his subject's unique power (they've been playing together for years now), Goetze maintains a keen focus on Cissoko's shiver-inducing voice and hypnotic Kora patterns (the instrument bears some resemble to the harp). Between scenes of the warm, intelligent musician performing either solo, in his ensemble or with Goetze, the director interviews community members and professionals (including a very insightful history professor) about the current cultural climate in Senegal and how the role of the griot can evolve to preserve and enrich the heritage of the region in this modern age.
Much more than an excellent piece of promotion for Goetze and Cissoko's global touring as ambassadors of cultural preservation, Griot is a moving, beautiful and unflinching depiction of a people and their lifestyle. Without comment, Goetze trains his camera on the simple occurrences of daily life in this community: a man getting bitten by goat while preparing it for slaughter; a woman nursing; children dancing in the streets to the complex rhythms of an impromptu drum circle; and young men angrily protesting local economic conditions.
Full of Zen-like wisdom, immeasurable beauty and positively inspiring unselfconscious experimentation with musical forms,Griot is an absolute must-see for anyone enthralled by the meditative, reflective and emotionally evocative qualities of composition. This powerful documentary should help ensure that Cissoko's sacred duty takes on new significance as part of the global story of humanity's great artistic achievements. (Vagrant)