“Musicians are closer to society in Africa,” Senegalese performer Baaba Maal told Robin Denselow of London's Guardian newspaper, comparing African music with that of the West. “We use our voice to say what the people expect from their leaders.” Striking a balance between traditional African music and engagement with the music of Europe and the United States, Maal has evolved into an entertainer who carries moral authority, both in his own culture and on the world stage. As one of the first musicians to enjoy international success under the world beat genre label, he has never stopped experimenting musically and has proven unusually durable in his appeal.
Baaba Maal was born in the small town of Podor, Senegal, on November 12, 1953. A member of the Fulani (or Fula) ethnic group of northern Senegal, he grew up as part of a subgroup called Hal Pulaar—speakers of the Pulaar dialect. Even though many contemporary stars of West African music have been raised in griot (traditional musician-storyteller) families, Maal was not; he was the son of a farm worker. Maal's father, however, did provide a musical example for his son: He gave the muezzin, or call to prayer, over a loudspeaker mounted outside the local mosque. The influence of Islamic religious chant can still be heard in Maal's high, clear voice.
Traveled With Blind Guitarist
While attending school in the French colonial city of St. Louis, Maal won an art scholarship that enabled him to move to the Senegalese capital of Dakar. His parents expected him to study law at Dakar University, but Maal had other ideas. He joined a large traditional ensemble called Asly Fouta, where he learned about music from other West African cultures. Fascinated by the music that he was exposed to, he decided to obtain a traditional Senegalese musical education: He apprenticed himself to a griot named Mansour Seck, a blind guitarist. The two traveled around West Africa performing in small villages and absorbing musical lore from the local elders.
Meanwhile, Maal was soaking up other kinds of music. He heard Cuban salsas and rumbas, Jamaican reggae, and American soul music on the radio. He recognized the African roots of all these products of the African diaspora, and at first he did not realize that the musicians were not Senegalese. When he did figure out what he was hearing, he had questions. “American black music, rhythm and blues, reggae. I loved them, but they all had their roots in West Africa. I thought, why am I hearing this on the radio and not traditional African music?” he recalled to Jane Cornwell of the Independent.
Despite his nontraditional background, Fulani griots recognized Maal's talent and chose him as a musical representative of the Fulani people. Maal rounded out his education with classes in Western music at the Paris Conservatory in France. There, he told Cornwell, he “began to see all the differences in music and how all these musics could go together.” Mansour Seck came to France to join him, and the pair formed the band Wandama and toured Europe and Senegal. They recorded the song “Djam Leelii” as a duo in Brussels, Belgium. In the 1980s Maal formed the band Daande Lenol and recorded several albums that were released exclusively on cassette tapes and distributed throughout Senegal.
Appeared on Senegalese Television
Maal broke through to fame in his homeland of Senegal with a televised concert at the Daniel Sorano Theater in Dakar in February of 1986. His Wango album of the previous year was picked up for distribution by the African music specialist supplier Stern's in London. Maal made some appearances in Europe the following year, and in 1988 British producer Chris Blackwell of Island Records, who had helped popularize reggae internationally and hoped to do the same with West African styles, happened to hear a tape of “Djam Leelii” and promptly signed Maal to his new Mango label.
Returning to Europe, Maal toured France and the Netherlands in 1989, made a guest appearance on Peter Gabriel's Passion album, and released new CDs in quick succession:Djam Leelii (1989), Baayo (1991), and Lam Toro (1993). These albums were hybrids of high-tech production techniques from British studios and traditional Senegalese rhythms; furthermore, Baayo featured a specifically Hal Pulaar rhythm associated with grain grinding. Maal also made albums (such as Yélé in 1993 and Tiim Timol in 1994) for the Senegalese market, and the concerts he performed at home, where he would take the stage in a small village setting and perform for much of the night, differed from the structured shows he mounted in European arenas. In the United States, where African music was less widely played, Maal appeared in small clubs and traditional-music venues.
Wherever he appeared, Maal was a master showman. Surrounded by a phalanx of spectacular female dancers, he dressed in layers of flowing robes that he shed as the concert progressed. He spoke both French and English fluently, but, insisting on the importance of minority identities, he generally sang in the Pulaar language, explaining the contents of songs in concert for foreign audiences. In general, Maal showed an unusual ability to steer a path that kept him close to his roots and yet allowed him to interact with other cultures and take on new musical influences. His Firin' in Fouta album of 1994 helped spawn the diverse careers of Senegalese rappers Positive Black Soul and the African-Irish band Afro Celt Sound System.
Spoke Out on AIDS Issue
Celtic flavors were present once again on 1998's Nomad Soul, along with a host of other sounds: The making of the album entailed the participation of a host of producers including Simon Emmerson, Brian Eno, and Jamaica's Robbie Shakespeare. After that high-tech extravaganza and the 1999 follow-up Live at the Royal Festival Hall, the indefatigable Maal took a break, becoming involved in business ventures in Senegal. Maal also intensified his efforts on behalf of Senegalese AIDS victims during this period, becoming a United Nations Development Program spokesperson on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.
At a Glance …
Born on November 12, 1953, in Podor, Senegal; married and divorced; one son. Education:Attended Dakar University; toured Senegal as apprentice of guitarist Mansour Seck; attended Paris Conservatory for two years, around 1980.
Career: Formed band Daande Lenol, early 1980s; recorded cassette-only albums in Senegal; signed to Mango label, 1988; recorded for Mango and Palm Pictures labels; toured Europe, and appeared as final act at World of Music and Dance Festival, England, 2007; United Nations Development Program, HIV/AIDS spokesperson.
Addresses: Office—International Music Network, Two Main St., Fourth Fl., Gloucester, MA 01930.
Much of Maal's music had political and social content, touching not only on HIV/AIDS but also on African unity, poverty, the environment, and the lasting effects of European colonialism. To a degree, he was influenced by Nigerian performer Fela Kuti. “Fela taught me that it's important for singers in Africa to become politically involved. He also showed how to incorporate different black music in his songs,” Maal told Peter Culshaw of the Daily Telegraph. Maal's thirteen-piece band was called Daande Lenol (Voice of the People). But he followed Fela neither in his prodigious drug use nor in his polygamous ways; while Fela had some twenty wives, Maal was married once and had one son. While Maal's music was serious, it was less likely than Fela's to carry strongly revolutionary overtones. Many Senegalese regarded Maal as a marabout—a dervish with magical powers to bring rain, cure sickness, or predict the future.
Maal returned in 2001 with Missing You … Mi Yeewnii, in which he largely avoided electronics in favor of acoustic instruments and traditional sounds. The album was recorded in open-air venues in Senegal using a mobile studio, and ambient noises such as the chirping of crickets are audible in the music. Critical praise for the album inspired similar efforts from other West African stars such as Salif Keita and Youssou N'Dour. In 2001 Maal also contributed several songs to the soundtrack of the film Black Hawk Down.
Continuing to speak out on social issues, Maal castigated organizers of the Live 8 festival for its lack of inclusion of African artists. He rivaled Irish rock singer Bono in his ability to mobilize political energy for humanitarian causes. Younger African artists had appeared on the scene by the mid-2000s, but Maal remained an elder statesman of world music who could tour and fill large halls at will. He established a new festival in Senegal called Blues de la Fleuve (Blues of the River). Maal made U.S. appearances in 2002 and 2006, and in 2007, while working on a new release, he toured Europe and closed England's World of Music and Dance Festival with a riotously colorful seventy-minute set. Source: Encyclopedia.com
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