Baaba Maal is a Senegalese singer-songwriter who is at the cross-roads of his career, as far as the West is concerned. Since releasing his first solo album, an acoustic set entitled `Djam Leelii', which got picked up during the first wave of world music interest in the West in the mid-'80s; with the recent release of Maal's latest album, `Firin' In Fouta' and a second set of live gigs in London within three months, it seems Maal's music is set to gain a lot of new converts outside of the world music scene.
Maal's small build and handsome face belies the fact that he's aged 40 and has been performing for about a quarter of a century! Unlike the other two well-known Senegalese performers, Youssou N'Dour and Ismael Lo, Maal is not Wolof - he's a Fulani who comes from the northern region of Fouta. His music is more embracing, taking in the popular highly rhythmic mbalax style which he sometimes sings in Wolof. Like N'Dour and Lo, his music has a reggaeish yella feel, combining Muslim influences and several traditional West African styles.
He began singing in a huge traditional theatrical troupe as a teenager in the `70s. "It was like a musical university for traditional music," recalls Maal. It was whilst with this troupe that his musical interest was developed by his friend and mentor, Mansour Seck, a noted musician in his own right who taught Maal how to play the guitar. Their friendship endures till today; Seck features on Maal's live and recorded work, whilst Maal guests on Seck's new album, `N'der Fouta Tooro' just released by Stern's. "I can't be somewhere in the world without Mansour Seck," Maal declares from the stage as the spotlight is turned on the Seck.
Whilst on first listen, `Firin' In Fouta', reveals too much Western input, catch Maal live and it's altogether a different proposition. For example on his acoustic tour last November, it was him and Seck on acoustic guitars, backed by various African percussion instruments and kora. For his February gig at London's Royal Festival Hall with his Daande Lenol (voices of the People), the stage was decorated with giant straw brooms and mats; the dancers symbolically performed carrying calabashes, the musicians were bedecked in African attire while various African percussion instruments including the expertly performed talking drum, and a kora were featured.
`Firin' In Fouta', which Maal describes as a "universal album" was recorded in Senegal, at N'Dour's Studio 2000 in Dakar, and in Britain - mainly at Peter Gabriel's Realworld studios. With so many British musicians having worked on it, wasn't it bound to dilute its Africanness? "If the music comes from them to us, then it changes," defends Maal, "but it's not coming from them, it's coming from Africa to them. I explain to them what I want. It's my idea coming from me."
`Njilou' is a beautiful, pensive ballad whose lyrics when explained reveal a telling socio-economic commentary on the state of Africa. But its full-blown use of orchestral strings is just too European.
"It's a classical song, that's why I put in strings. It's talking about the way that Africa has suffered for a long time through slavery, colonialisation and now devaluation. At the begining of 1994 the French people devalued the money (CFA). It's not just about Senegal but the whole of Africa. Now a lot of musicians are talking about trying to build a united Africa. If you look around there's the United States of America, The European Union, the Arabic people are trying to build one nation and if you look at Africa, people are fighting, ethnic problems, political problems, and just at the moment that people are talking about unifying, the value of the African currencies are going lower. Now is the time for Africans to know that the future of Africa is in their hands. We need a lot of things, but what we need more is to understand that we have our own references in our society."
Noble sentiments, but is it possible to compose an African classical song without resort to typical Western instrumentation? "Yes it is possible but it's a choice. That's why when we tour we play all this music using many African traditional instruments."
Whilst Maal may be modern, well-travelled and not afraid to fuse other cultures, he is nevertheless concerned about the erosion of African traditional culture. On `Ba', with Maal's vocals soaring over what he says is "the most traditional song on this album,", he pays homage to Amadou Hampate Ba, a Fulani historian from Mali.
"He used to say the language we used and its proverbs used to teach us. What is really bad for this generation is that all these nice proverbs are being lost as the old people pass away - when they die, it's like a whole library dies... he died two years ago."
`Mbaye', performed in the mbalax style and sung in Wolof so that most of his compatriots understand the message, critices those who pay lip service to the heroes. "I say if you continue to sing about our heroes and our grandparents, why don't you make it true in our hearts and our actions?"
Maal, who carries political correctness in his heart, not only advocates issues like African unity but highlights every day plights like the lack of access for women. `African Woman', was specially commissioned by four African women organisations who wanted a song to promote on radio across west Africa, hence the use of English and French lyrics.
"Why not use the things coming from the West but use them in an African way?" asks Maal. After all, Africa is part of today's global village of CNNs and cyberspace information highways. "The young people now, they don't want you to call them only Africans. They have the personality of Africans, but they see themselves as any other young people in the world. They want to be equal with the rest of the world in everything, including music."