In-Depth: Baaba Maal

This month in our in-depth feature series, journalist Jon Lusk talks to Senegalese musician and cultural ambassador Baaba Maal about his 25-year career with band Daande Lenol and his tireless philanthropic and educational work. Click on the following links to read our previous in-depth features: The Genius of Weather Report, The Cult of Nic Jones, Mary Gauthier in Song and Legend of The Watersons.

Baayo Nomad Soul
Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) Television

There are few more instantly recognisable voices than that of Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal. Like the dry, Sahelian landscape he was born in – and instantly evocative of that place – his voice is harsh but also very beautiful, swooping from a soothing croon to a piercing, nasal wail in a second, as the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. He often has to pull way back from the microphone; the man has volume.

Baaba Maal - Mandela Peace concert  (April 2001)It was during the 1990s that we heard that voice most often, as Baaba made regular international tours, and released a diverse string of acclaimed albums that ranged from the stripped-back acoustic setting of Baayo (1991) to the intense Afro-pop fusion of Nomad Soul (1998). But during the first decade of the twentieth century, his profile as a singer was less prominent. There were no new studio recordings between his startling back-to-roots album Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) in 2001 and the pop crossover of Television (2009). However, a more complex picture emerged, of an artist with fingers in many pies and huge commitments to ‘extra-curricular’ work in charity, development, education, advocacy and representative roles.

As a Youth Emissary for the United Nations Development Programme, he has focused on the challenges of illiteracy, poverty and HIV/AIDS. He is also a UN envoy for the Millennium Development Goal, and an ambassador for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Project, which is also fighting HIV/AIDS. In 2005, he addressed the march of the Make Poverty History campaign at the G8 protest in Edinburgh. The following year, he established the Blues du Fleuve festival in his hometown of Podor, which is about much more than simply music. And in 2009, he attended the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, as the ‘climate change ambassador’ for the Africa Talks Climate initiative.

Aside from all of these activities, he has made numerous appearances as a public speaker and performer at events focusing on these and other issues, such as working with the Playing For Change Foundation, which builds music schools in Africa. And then there is his involvement in the ongoing Africa Express project, which was established partly in response to the notorious under-representation of African artists by the Live Aid organisation.

There almost seemed a point where we might have expected to hear that Baaba Maal was about to run for President in Senegal, but as he explained to the journalist Robin Denselow during a Q&A session at London’s School of Oriental & African Studies in March 2007, he has no intention of doing so: “I will never be a politician,” he reassured the audience. “I think what I’m doing is much nicer… we [musicians] are much closer to the people – people love musicians better than them [the politicians]… people are not fooled. They know what politicians want from them.”

Baaba Maal 2011 (photo © Jon Lusk) Instead, he cherishes his role as a ‘new griot’ (rather than a hereditary one), using music to say what the people would say to their leaders – if they had a voice. That’s one reason why his band is called Daande Lenol, meaning ‘voice of the people’. They have just celebrated a quarter of a century together, and Baaba reflects on their achievements with a calm sense of satisfaction when I meet him in March 2011 at the London offices of his current record company Palm Pictures. He sports short dreads and a modest sweatshirt and jeans, and seems a much more down-to-earth and humbly dressed character than you might expect after witnessing the lavish haut couture boubous of his lofty on-stage persona.

Like Tiken Jah Fakoly of Ivory Coast and successive members of the Kuti family of Nigeria, Baaba sees it as his duty to be brave in speaking out. He feels musicians enjoy a certain security that ordinary citizens do not, and can afford to be bold as a result. “What we have is much more powerful than politics, and [we] should use that to say things that all the society wants to say to the leaders – all kinds of leaders. Because you feel comfortable – you know you have people with you, and whatever happens to you, you have people who maybe will fight for [you] or stay on your side or talk on your behalf. And you feel that… it gives you confidence. You say ‘Yes, I do whatever I want to do, say whatever I have to say, because I have these people’.”

Daande Lenol combine traditional African music with aspects of modernity and the musical world beyond Africa, reflecting Baaba’s own life experience, which has constantly moved between different worlds. “I went to school, I travelled, I went to France. For me, Europe was the modern side of the world and we have the traditional side of the world in Africa. People are saying ‘keep your tradition, don’t lose it’, and in the West, people are moving forward to the future, so to me, being able to have my evolution in the two sides, to have them deeply in my [music]… was the concept of my band.”

Baaba Maal - African Soul Rebels Tour (March 2009)Baaba has projected this by combining traditional West African instruments such as the kora, the hoddu (the Pulaar word for the ancient lute known as xalam in Wolof and ngoni in Bambara) and the ‘talking drum’ with guitar, keyboards and kit drums.

“[The concept] was very confusing in my head at the beginning, but through the years I found it became clear and I said ‘Yes, I was not wrong, it can work together, because it’s all linked.’”

Another important point he makes about the band is their multi-ethnic make-up, which results from a conscious attempt to include as many of the different voices of the Senegalese people as possible. It also means their music has a broader, richer cultural base to draw on – just like compatriots Orchestra Baobab. While Maal and his long-term sidekick Mansour Seck are from the Fulani (Pulaar) speaking North of Senegal, the other members hail from all over the country and thus represent Senegal’s other major ethnic groups, such as Wolof, Serer and Bambara.

“Everyone was free to bring his way of approaching the songs, because I didn’t want to say that it’s just a Fulani group. For me, it had to be an African group, not just Senegalese even, because the Bambara, they are connected to Mali and Guinea.”

In 1982, four years before Baaba formed Daande Lenol, he and Mansour Seck were in Belgium, where they recorded a song with the title Daande Lenol. It was released on their debut cassette Dannibe, which also featured early versions of Muudo Hormo and Bibbe Leyde, both of which would eventually be re-recorded in 1984 for Djam Leelii, Baaba’s first internationally released vinyl album. From the very start, he was determined to use music to talk about issues of importance to his community and country in a progressive way. Bibbe Leyde was ahead of its time in tackling the growing threat of climate change – in particular, the desertification that was and still is adversely affecting his own ethnic group:

“At that time we were already facing the Sahel being very dry. Most of the Fulani people, the young ones, they travel, go to Central Africa to find good opportunities, and some of them to France. So [in that song] I talk about the environmental situation and also the political situation, because there was no help, the food was becoming very low there.”

In those days, this activist approach was in stark contrast to that of the traditional griots, whose lyrics were often devoted to praising wealthy patrons.

“The perception [of my fans] was ‘Oh, this one is not someone who is gonna sing to praise people, he’s someone who’s gonna talk about the reality of our lives’, so that start[ed] to be put on my skin, like this is my way of doing music… People who think: ‘Yeah music is fine, but we need to learn’ kind of thing, they were my advisors … the ones who was buying just right away my music [in order] to say: ‘This is our music, our positive thinking, like us … music like we would have done’. So this is why later on the message was becoming very, very important in my head.”

Baaba Maal 2009At the time of our interview, Baaba is preparing for his ‘Women Of the World’ gig showcasing the work of five female artists at London’s Royal Festival Hall, which includes a memorable perfomance by his protégée Annie Flore Batchiellilys from Gabon. Baaba has often said that the influence of his mother was crucial in his becoming a musician, so was this a part of his motivation for advocating women’s issues?

“That’s one of the reasons, but the most powerful reason for me is… you know in my latest album [Television] I did a song which was repeated three times. You have Tindo, Tindo Quando and A Song For Women… all talking about women. I think in the last ten years we did all notice in Africa that women are coming more and more on the front line of everything, when it comes to politics, economics, culture, everything, and it’s changing Africa a little bit in a good way, but it’s still small and we want to see it more and more often.

“So for years now I see that Africa should count on two groups of people. One is the women, because they have the ability to be together. They have the ability to put on a project and to follow it and to make it happen … they are more focused than men on the continent.”

“And the second group is the young generation. A generation that is facing of course, poverty, a lack of education, all this kind of problem that we have in Africa, but at the same time, a strong young generation, which never drop their hands – they are always trying to do small things. And this is two kinds of energy that we should focus on in Africa, to help them have voices… the problem is they don’t have voices. And to see that women in the world, sometimes very young women in the world have voices that should be linked to the voices of the women in Africa, is one of the reasons I wanted to do that.”

Firin' In FoutaBaaba has been championing women’s issues for some time, as the sleeve notes for his Sene-salsa showstopper African Woman on the album Firin’ In Fouta (1994) make clear: “It is her participation in every aspect of our lives, both culturally, economically, politically and socially – that we rely on in the building of our new Africa.”

Just a few weeks before we speak, The Guardian’s columnist Suzanne Moore asked the question: ‘What does a feminist man look like?’ and then answered it with a list that included Baaba Maal. So how does he feel about being described that way?

“Yes! I’m proud of that!” he bellows enthusiastically. “It’s not a shame. Especially in Africa, if we leave the women [to fight] on their own, with all the pressure of man, on the top of that, starting by the governments to the religious leaders and everything, it’s gonna be a long way before they get their place. Some mans should be very brave to open their eyes to see what women can really bring to our society. I’m very proud that she should say that.”

Growing up in an overcrowded, polygamous household in Podor and seeing first hand the negative effects this had on his mother and others, certainly played a role in shaping his gender politics. His father had two wives, of whom Baaba’s mother was the first; she had seven children and the second wife had nine.

‘At first I was not very conscious about how hard it would be in the two sides, between the children who were rising up in the same family, when it’s like two families in one. Even when we appreciate each other, I think sometimes it’s very bizarre… because you can feel the two different families in there, because everyone is so close to his or her mum. And you feel that in a small area where maybe – in Africa – ten people should be living together, you end up being more than 30 people… because it’s not just my father’s children, its also his nephews and nieces and my other aunts from my father’s brothers and sisters living in the same house, and my grandmother from my father’s side.”

Before he had such a big family, Baaba’s father was a wealthy man, having been a well-paid ‘adjudant-chef’ in the French army during World War Two. “But just one pocket can’t feed all these people. He didn’t want to stop his responsibilities, taking care of everyone, so I can understand that for him it was really, really hard.”

In Podor, his father made a living as a fisherman and farmer, but struggled to maintain harmony between all the members of his growing family, like Baaba’s mother. As in most polygamous families, however hard she tried to pull the family together, there was always an element of competition between the two wives for their husband’s affections.

Before marrying, Baaba’s mother used to write songs, but afterwards, she was not permitted to perform in public, since they were not a griot family. Nevertheless, she would often sing while pounding millet for the family meals, and when Baaba became interested in music – in some ways an act of rebellion, and a way of carving out an identity within such a large group – she encouraged him: “She was happy that maybe one day, I would be able to do it.”

Baaba Maal (July 2003)One of his father’s duties was being a muezzin, calling Muslim worshippers to prayer, which also had a significant influence on Baaba’s appreciation of music. And the fact that Podor is on the frontier with Mauritania means it has always been a cosmopolitan place, with a rich mix of ethnic groups. Thus, from ever since he could remember, Baaba was immersed in the ‘Moorish’ music from north of the Senegal river, the wild cross rhythms of Wolof music, and various sounds from neighbouring Mali, not to mention those of the local Fulani musicians.

Baaba’s high school years were spent at a boarding school in Saint-Louis, the port and provincial capital at the mouth of the Senegal River. Joining the local boy scouts’ group in his early teens proved to be a decisive step on his path to becoming a singer. Initially he was attracted by the prospect of adventure and the freedom of weekend trips to camps in the bush, and it was while singing round campfires on such trips that people started to notice his talent. “People were saying ‘Oh yeah, you have a good voice,’ and was talking about it to other people, and people started to invite me to Saint-Louis in some ceremonies.”

So it was that he started earning money from singing while in his early teens. At the same time, he was also absorbing the glories of African American music by legends such as James Brown, Otis Redding and Etta James, drawn instinctively towards their music without fully understanding the nature of its connection to his own. By the time he had completed his baccalauréat (school leaving certificate) and was preparing to go to university in Dakar, Baaba had developed into a promising performer, but the death of his mother’s brother in 1973 meant there was suddenly more pressure on him to try and find a ‘respectable’ job that paid a decent wage.

“My mother was very devastated by the death of my uncle, because …when the family became a polygamous family, my uncle was the only support that she had. She didn’t want to run away because she had me and my brothers and sisters, and my uncle did understand that. He said ‘Just stay there, whatever you need, if it’s material things, I can bring it to you, I can give you money, I can bring you the food. I can give you support [for] all your children.’”

With that lifeline for her gone, Baaba resolved to study law in Dakar, starting in 1974. However, he was torn between his sense of duty in providing for his mother and the music bug, which had bitten him hard. “I went to the university for some months, not even one year, but all the time I was there, I was thinking: ‘I can’t run away from music!’ Because I was already going to see the Lasli Fouta, this big orchestra [of around 70 musicians], going to their rehearsals, asking to perform sometimes. I would be going with them sometimes in Mauritania to perform for the weekend and then come back in Dakar. I said [to myself]: ‘My father will never accept me to be a musician, just like that, to drop the school…[so] I’m gonna find the solution’.”

That solution was to switch from law to studying at a conservatory of music in Dakar, ostensibly with the aim of becoming a music teacher, which his father would consider just as ‘professional’ as being a lawyer or doctor. “He said ‘Fine. If at the end of it you will be a teacher, that’s fine.’ So this is how I went to the conservatory and I start the next step of my dream in Dakar.”

TaaraBeing away from home meant Baaba was free to perform more and more, but he was still afraid to tell his father that he really wanted to ‘do’ rather than ‘teach’ music. When he recorded songs with Lasli Fouta (including the first version of Taara, which was also recorded for Dannibe and eventually became the title track of his 1990 album for Syllart/Melodie) and these were regularly broadcast on Senegalese radio, he had to pretend that it wasn’t him singing. Eventually, his father realised who it was, and declared: “If you are doing songs like that, that I can listen to, or that someone older than me can listen to, then I’m with you.”

By 1978, his father had come to broadly accept what his son was doing, and even offer advice. Thirsty for adventure after several years of studying European classical music at the conservatory (including how to write music and play the piano), Baaba decided to go on a sort of musical pilgrimage or lapol with Mansour Seck – the griot musician who had been a firm friend and a steady musical influence since they were teenagers. In doing this, they were following an established tradition for musicians from their region, wandering the countryside, meeting and performing with other artists from small villages.

“I said to my father: ‘We want to do it just for the holidays’,” laughs Baaba, “and he said ‘Yes, that’s fine. I’m going back to Podor.’”

However, the ‘holiday’ morphed into a musical rite of passage – an odyssey that lasted nearly two years, and saw the pair visit not just the backwoods of Senegal but also Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Mali and finally Ivory Coast.

[These were] “some of the best years of my life, forgetting about study, family,” Baaba recalls during a performance and Q&A session with playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah (‘Tales from the Sahel’) at London’s Tabernacle two weeks after our interview. “Till now, it all comes back to my memory when I go to the studio.”

Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck at Afropop Hall of Fame

At the beginning of 1981, when Baaba’s father passed away, he and Mansour returned to Podor, and after a few months, Baaba resumed his studies at the National Arts Institute in Dakar. “They were very kind because they could have said to me ‘You don’t have any place here’… but they did understand, because the head of the conservatory always said to me: ‘I know you will never be a teacher – you want to perform, that’s your thing! I can feel it and I wish you do, because you are a good performer.’”

Before the end of that year, though, Baaba had once again decided to leave – this time for Paris, where he would take up a postgraduate scholarship at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. More importantly, he was attracted by the opportunities that the city offered in terms of furthering the show business career he had already started with the traditional group Yeli Taaré, which he had formed with Mansour Seck and Mbassou Niang. With a thriving artistic community of expatriate African musicians such as Toure Kunda, Mory Kante and Manu Dibango based there, Paris seemed like the place to be for an ‘intellectual’ musician. Especially one keen to find out how the music business worked in Europe.

The two Senegalese friends in Paris who had encouraged him to go there got together the money for his ticket, and before he left, his mother counselled him to try to find a way to do the same for Mansour Seck. So in May 1992, Baaba left for Paris and by October of that year, they had brought Mansour over as well.

Almost immediately they travelled to Germany and then on to Brussels, where they met a local man called Philippe Goffin, who invited them to record in his home studio after they had helped him build it. Thus they recorded the songs that were then released as the cassette Dannibe.

African Soul Revolutionary Wango

In 1983, they released three more cassette albums, culminating in the infamous Djam Leelii. Baaba returned to Senegal in 1984 after the death of his mother and decided to stay, recording five more cassettes for the local market with the group Wandama before forming Daande Lenol, whose debut Suka Naayo appeared in 1987. All the songs on this local release would resurface as part of the compilation African Soul Revolutionary (Nascente, 2010), which also includes the material on his first internationally released vinyl album, Wango (1988).

This was reasonably well received, but the record that really got early fans of ‘world music’ talking was the 1989 reissue of Djam Leelii on Rogue Records. With its starkly atmospheric, stripped-down sound, it effectively became a ‘desert blues’ classic before the term had been coined, creating a buzz that paved the way for the triumphs of the 1990s – in particular the three seminal albums he made for the now defunct UK label Mango, effectively spawning Simon Emmerson’s Afro Celt Sound System in the process.

Baaba’s open-minded approach to music and very varied output may have brought him a broad fan base, but this has also meant that it has been tough to please everyone as his muse has see-sawed between tradition and modernity, from austere, ‘pure’ sounding folkloric formats to hi-tech fusions, which some see as over-produced. Has it been difficult for him to straddle these two ends of the spectrum?

“Yes, very hard! I agree, it’s very, very hard for me. I am looking to find a way, not to please everyone, but to do things better… just that are ‘normal’ for me, musically talking and things I really want to do, that I feel ‘this is really me’. Not the business, not nothing else, just what I want to produce.”

The short, understated set Baaba played at The Tabernacle with percussionists Jim Palmer and Mamadou Sarr as part of the ‘Tales of the Sahel’ tour offered a pointer as to where his music may be headed. “I think most of the people when they listen to my music, especially when I play with Mansour Seck, even with some others like Barry Reynolds, they want to hear something which is more intimate. Something more warm, more natural, because it fits much better with my personality, and the things I’m talking about, or the humanity… this is where the emotion and everything comes out and that’s – I agree, that’s me – what I’m looking to do for the future, because even physically and mentally it’s less tiring, it’s less struggle, it’s more natural.”

There is also a feeling among some long-term observers that Baaba’s many commitments have caused him to spread himself a little too thinly, and to some extent leave his music behind.

“It had to happen … if it didn’t happen, we couldn’t make a kind of starting point of … using culture like a way to inform or communicate with people, for people to communicate between them[selves], or to give people the chance to be together to think about important things … I will say if we didn’t do that, it would never happen. There was not some other Fulani musicians who would be talking … on the behalf of the Fulani community … so that’s why in these last ten years I was more concerned on putting around me the Foundation of Baaba Maal. I was talking about education, agriculture and culture itself, and health, and also putting the Blues du Fleuve festival on.”

Baaba is keen to stress the importance of his holistic approach to this three-day event – now in its fifth year and thus firmly established – which moves around the Podor region and provides a focus for debate, education, exhibitions, fashion shows and other aspects of local culture aside from just music.

“I had to do this. Otherwise it would have been only me and my music, and later on people will say ‘What did my music bring really to them, except of the messages?’ … so I had to put something there. So I took these last ten years to drop a little bit the music, just to concentrate on that. Now it’s working, and I have people who are working on that, I can come back into my music.”

Baaba Maal (2009)

Baaba is currently working on two major musical projects. One is a documentary film provisionally titled The Blues Of The River. It will trace the epic journey he made in his twenties with Mansour Seck discovering West Africa’s musical treasure trove, which has proved to be such an endless well of inspiration during his career. The other is an experimental show to be staged at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Minuit is named after a song he recorded with Mansour Seck for the 1998 album In Search Of The Lost Riddim, by Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and mirrors Baaba’s own musical journey:

“It will be a meeting between two classical musics. I will bring a story from Africa that was interpreted with classical African music. That’s a true story that happened when the French people arrived in a small village [in Senegal]. The two communities were together… and I’m working with classical musicians from the West to see where is the connection musically. When the French musicians came with their… classical music, that gave some influences to our traditional music. This is how we came to play the western guitar … how we played the parts and put songs like Miyaabele [as heard on Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)] on the top of that … it’s a kind of little opera. I bring my imagination and some older songs to make it kind of a contemporary story. It will include songs and me telling the story, and all the way through the story I’m telling, people will perform all these classical songs from the West and Africa, and the songs that we have together.”

Miyaabele from the album Missing You (Mi Yeewnii)

But are there any new Baaba Maal recordings planned?

“Oh yes, of course … I’m writing my songs, I’m recording, I’m filming, I’m experimenting [with] new projects for myself, with other musicians, and there will be some products that can come out. But the business is changing. It’s not any more making CDs or things like that – we have to think about new ideas of promoting and presenting the music.”

We surely do, and that’s reflected by the fact that Baaba’s 2008 album On The Road was only available on vinyl or as a free download. Nevertheless, he assures me of one thing: “It’s not gonna be ten years before another one!”

As Baaba and Daande Lenol enter their second quarter century together, he’s confident about their future: “We are reinventing ourselves as musicians, and we will come back with something new and great.”

Baaba Maal will be performing at Womad Charlton Park (28th – 31st July 2011).

Words: Jon Lusk
Photos: courtesy of Island Trading Company unless otherwise credited