Two women sitting in front of me murmured in increasing exasperation as
Senegalese singer Baaba Maal discussed women’s rights, the promise of Africa’s youth and his circuitous path to music with British music journalist Chris Salewicz during the New York stop of Maal’s mostly acoustic “Tales of the Sahel” tour. Attired in an elegantly understated gray-and-white striped boubou, Maal began the evening with a transcendent solo rendition of “Baayo” (The Orphan), a song he wrote more than two decades ago in response to his mother’s death and which I yearned to put on repeat. But now we were in the Q&A portion of the Pace University event, and Maal seemed determined to convince us of his celebrity-sized humanitarian tendencies by mouthing vague generalities as four or five photographs of grasslands and savannahs loomed in constant rotation behind him. So the musical release, when it finally arrived in the form of Maal accompanied by two percussionists and an understated electric guitarist, was all the sweeter.
As a musician, Maal has been an international force to reckon with since 1989, when Djam Leeli was released in Britain. Maal recorded the quietly majestic album with Mansour Seck, the guitarist mentor who first convinced Maal to devote his life to music, and with whom he’d been recording since 1982. The pair had traveled extensively throughout northern Senegal, southern Mauritania and Mali, and distilled their cultural gleanings into this remarkable debut. With its hypnotic vamps, night-sounds ambience and Maal’s remarkable Islam-tinged vocals, Djam Leeli marked a break with the more frenetic Wolof-influenced music, including Youssou N’dour’s mbalax, that dominated Dakar at the time.
Maal represented a different constituency. Born in 1953, Maal was raised in the country’s northernmost town of Podor as a Pulaar-speaking member of the Toucouleur tribe. (Which isn’t to say he never aspired to be a pop star, as demonstrated by the perfectly credible mbalax-tinged 1986 Dakar recordings heard on Jombaajo.) “I’d wake up at five in the morning to hear my father’s voice filling the neighborhood,” recalled Maal, whose father was both a fisherman and a local muezzin who’d call devotees to prayer. Maal’s mother sang but his father eschewed such frivolity. When Maal moved to Dakar to study education, however, he surreptitiously recorded some tracks for Senegal’s national radio station. He asked the announcer never to mention his name, for fear his father would hear of it, but it slipped out on the airwaves one day while Baaba happened to be visiting his family. Three minutes of stern silence from his father ensued, long enough to exact a promise from Baaba never to sing anything sinful.
Maal subsequently followed countless other African musicians to Paris, where he heard and was influenced by the radical Jamaican dub poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka. But instead of becoming an outspoken leftist, Baaba Maal eventually became Senegal’s other leading voice and bandleader. He sang in Pulaar, which led Wolof listeners to accuse him of snobbery. But Dande Lenol (the People’s Voice), the smoking 10-piece group he formed in 1985, was a powerful intertribal bridge that has only improved (and expanded) over the years, as a spin of 1999′s Live at the Royal Festival Hall will quickly prove. Like Youssou, Baaba Maal’s recording career has been a parallel pursuit, with several no-frills cassettes and CDs released in Senegal for every (usually overproduced) international release. Albums such as 1994′s Firin’ in Fouta and 1997′s Nomad Soul are ambitious and expensive productions in which Maal’s clarion voice and thunderous band are joined by Celtic harpists, experimental guitarist Michael Brooks, or Simon Jeffes’s strings as though to prove that even though this exotic singer is from far-away Africa, he’s no square.
You could almost say the same about Television, Baaba’s 2009 collaboration with Didi Gutman and Sabina Sciubba of New York’s Brazilian Girls, but it wouldn’t stick. Television is an unexpectedly laid-back experimental album in which Maal’s voice serves as an equal and non-dominating element alongside the Girls’ electronics and Barry Reynolds’s guitar. Reynolds also turned up at “Tales of the Sahel” to add his understated riffs to Television‘s “International” and “Dakar Moon,” among other songs. In fact, Baaba Maal’s bid for homegrown Bono status was all but forgotten by my two neighbors and the rest of the audience by the time the unusually youthful-looking singer’s casual charisma and friends gradually undid glutes from seats.