Baaba Maal was inspired as much by thirst for adventure as for learning when, as a young Paris conservatory student, he persuaded his teachers to let him spend two years collecting songs and stories in villages across his homeland of Senegal.
The music he sampled some three decades ago inspires him today.
“When I go on stage or when I write songs, I go back to those days in my memory,” the singer said in an interview.
He’s rooted in the traditional, but unafraid to meld his soaring, soulful voice to the contemporary. Maal, a slight 52-year-old with the bright, curious eyes of a child and a mop of stylish dreadlocks, has embraced reggae and hip-hop, worked with ultramodern producer Brian Eno, dueted with Carlos Santana.
Both sides of Baaba Maal took to a London stage during a concert this summer for the BBC Proms, a series usually devoted to Western classical music. Maal played some of the electric dance music that has made him famous, but showed how it evolved from African classical music, the songs of ceremony played on acoustic instruments such as the lute-like kora associated with the ancient griot caste of storyteller musicians.
Maal was born into a family of fishermen, and plays the guitar, not the kora. But he has become one of West Africa’s best-loved musicians, if not as well-known in the West as his countryman Youssou N’Dour or Salif Keita of Mali.
Promoting African cultureHe’s a frequent visitor to the West, though, perhaps never more so than this year, declared the year of Africa by the arts community in Britain. While British Prime Minister Tony Blair has focused political attention on reversing economic decline in Africa, museums, galleries, and theaters across the nation have devoted themselves to showing that African art is in anything but decline.
Maal has made some of the most intriguing contributions to Britain’s Africa 05. In April, he performed a London concert inspired and informed by Africa Remix, a show of 75 contemporary visual artists from 23 African countries that has since moved from London’s Hayward Gallery to Paris’s Pompidou Center.
Maal said what he saw in the gallery and learned speaking to many of the artists was that they shared concern about the state of Africa today — its wars and poverty, dictators and corruption, and the sense of frustration among a younger generation being robbed of its future. He wrote new songs and resurrected others, then filled a stage with drummers, dancers, and artwork projected onto a giant screen.
“It’s important that we all speak about the same things and have the same determination to change things,” he said. “Art is a very, very important way of communicating. It has played that role since forever. The griots, they knew the aspirations of the people and could say it loud to the leaders.”
That Maal is a musician first and foremost is evident even in the way he sits, one knee slightly raised as if waiting for him to rest his guitar there. He found not just a political connection to the Remix visual arts, but an aesthetic link to the way many of them layered and juxtaposed materials and ideas.
Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, for example, used bottle caps to create a tapestry reminiscent of traditional West African textiles. Mozambicans Goncalo Mabunda and Tito turned spent AK47s and other detritus of their country’s civil war into sculpture. Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare created a Victorian parlor decorated with bold African prints.
In much the same way, even the seemingly simple songs on “Missing You,” the popular 2001 acoustic album that found Maal at his most traditional, are complex layerings. The delicate, melodic kora is woven with Western guitars. Maal’s distinctive tenor, which does mournful yearning so well, calls and a choir responds.
Politics have a place in musicIf “Missing You” is an audio portrait of African village life, Maal explores contemporary Africa and its dialogue with the rest of the world elsewhere. He performs a kora-tinged “Bess You is My Woman,” on “Red, Hot and Rhapsody,” one in a series of albums featuring artists from around the world produced to raise money to fight AIDS. He sings with American bluesman Taj Mahal on another in the series, “Red, Hot and Riot,” a tribute to the late Nigerian performer Fela Anikulapo Kuti who was a world music superstar before the genre had a name.
“I don’t try any kind of thing, [but] I’m not afraid to try things that are connected to African music,” Maal said.
Some fans say his studio work doesn’t compare to Maal live, backed by the dancers and musicians of his troupe Daande Lenol, which means “The Voice of the People.” Their show is an energetic blend of costume, music and movement.
“My understanding of music is not just the song and the harmonies,” Maal said. “It’s how to fill up the space. We live in a moment in which people want to see as well as hear.”
Maal shed the drummers, dancers and even the music for another Africa 05 appearance, accepting an invitation to speak at the British Museum. Besides making music, Maal has long been a spokesman on AIDS in Africa and works with the U.N. Development Program to raise awareness about the needs of young Africans.
He says he was happy to come to London “not just to play music, but also to talk about the continent and its problems and how we want to face the future.”
While he believes sharing ideas can lead to solutions, he acknowledges talking can do only so much. He cited the current hunger crisis sweeping his West Africa, saying he had heard experts from the region calling on the world to help months ago, but aid came too late to save many.
He added that proposals from Blair and other Western leaders to increase aid and trade opportunities for Africa and cut its debts were encouraging, but real change could only come with reform at home.
“We can talk,” he said, “but the decisions must come from the governments.”