Baaba Maal is one of Africa’s most original and innovative artists. His music embraces the gentle filigree of West African folk, the tumult of mbalax and the toughness of rap and reggae.
Maal was born of a noble family of Podor, an ancient village on the fringes of the Sahara. Across the Senegal River lies Mauritania and thousands of miles of relentless desert. He spends a lot of time in Podor. Whenever he can, he comes back home. “It is very important for nomadic people to have a place to come back to. For months and months, they follow their animals. Nevertheless, there is always a moment when everyone comes back home. Then the marriage celebrations and other festivals take place. I, too, need to come back, lest my roots dry out.”
Maal’s early music came from the everyday sounds he heard around the village and along the desert tracks. “When I was a small boy, I used to sit next to the women pounding grain, or softly humming songs, or lulling babies to sleep. I heard beautiful melodies in all that. I also heard them in the wind, in the trees, in the river… everywhere. I was fascinated by all kinds of sounds.” Maal learnt many traditional songs from his mother, but the extended tone interval of his songs and the tonal purity of his voice show the influence of his father, the Muezzin of Podor. After attending Dakar conservatory, he went to study music in Paris, thanks to a scholarship. On his return, he went on a journey to research traditional music throughout West Africa with his family griot [a member of a caste responsible for maintaining an oral record of tribal or family history, in the form of music, poetry, and storytelling], and the blind guitarist Manson Seck.
Maal remembers: “It was then that I met a lot of young people who did not want to do only the jobs imposed by their caste. They were my first audience, because they understood and agreed with what I was doing. Yes, I see myself as a modern griot.” After dabbling in acoustic and Afro-reggae music, he formed his own band, Daande Lenol (The Voice of the People). The group has played a key role in African pop’s incorporation of hip-hop, reggae, and techno.
In 1989, Maal recorded Djam Leelii, an acoustic album that was released the same year in Britain and soon considered a revelation. Since then Maal has alternated acoustic and increasingly hi-tech electric albums and performances.
Maal’s major album of the 1990s was Firin’in Fouta, which featured everything from break beats to Breton harps, raga, salsa, and New Age drones. It was released in 1994. In 1998, with Nomad Soul, he continued his eclectic approach. Some tracks used traditional instruments in their classical roles; others absorbed them into shimmering programmed grooves. To casual listeners, Maal’s music seems to have strong reggae influences, but he claims that this comes more from the traditional yela music of his region: “It is an imitation of the sound of the pounding of the grain. The structures are the same as in reggae. The rhythm between the calabash and the clapping of the hands is the same as the one between the kick drum and the guitar in Jamaican music.”
Maal acknowledges: “At first, I was convinced the music came from West Africa but then I discovered jazz and blues. This music went to America and then came back to us.”
In 2001 he released, Mi Yeewnii (Missing You). It was more acoustic and intimate than the Firin’in Fouta and Nomad Soul. “Missing You means several things. I miss this more natural music and I miss this part of Senegal when I am away,” he said.
In the track Leydi Ma, he sings of the earth: “Everything comes from the earth. We will be buried in the earth. Yet, we do not take care of it.” Other songs are love songs or represent Maal’s more mystical side, such as the song Fanta, which tells the story of a woman who was a spirit of the river and whom no man could resist. In Miyaabele, Maal sings for the unity of Africa:
“Black people, let’s sing for African unity. The sun has risen, the cockerel is crowing. Let’s rise. It’s time to unite.” Despite the recording technology and the presence of international musicians, the music remains pure, melancholic, and deeply moving in a way that Baaba Maal has proved to be his trademark style. Delicate electric guitar and rousing background vocals mix with Senegalese balafon, kora, and acoustic guitar. All of this climaxes in a mind-blowing and moving finale, as Baaba Maal makes his plea for world peace.
In 2005, Baaba Maal released a box-set with an 11-track CD, a DVD documentary entitled ‘A Voice for Africa’, a beautiful booklet, maps, and information on Senegal. After an 8-year gap, Baaba Maal has two new albums – ‘On the Road’ (2008) which features acoustic live versions of much-loved tracks, and a studio album ‘Television’, released in 2009. The title track tells of television’s impact on Africa. Baaba’s songs often carry strong messages such as women’s rights and AIDS awareness.
Since 2005, he has been holding a festival called ‘The Blues of the River’ (Les Blues du Fleuve) with many people from his home area taking part.
In December 2009, Baaba attended the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen as the climate change ambassador for the Africa Climate Talks initiative – a ground-breaking research and communication initiative that explores the views of African citizens on climate change. While he was there he introduced “The Greatest Youth Debate on Earth”, a special edition of the BBC World Service’s flagship interactive news programme World Have Your Say, featuring a panel discussion with young people from around the world. Today Baaba continues his commitment. He is an ambassador for both Sight Savers International, a charity that offers cataract surgery, and for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 project; he also is a UN Youth Emissary.