Senegalese singer and songwriter Baaba Maal is a leader of the world music genre, combining traditional music from his homeland with Western popular culture, reggae music, and contemporary instrumentation. Singing in his native Pulaar language, Maal advocates world peace, African self-determination, the family, and individual dignity for men and women. His highly distinctive voice, at once nasal and full-throated, earned him the nickname “the Nightingale,” prompting R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe to remark to Jools Holland on the television program Later : “Maal opened his mouth and beautiful pearls and lilies and songbirds came flying out. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” Since the mid-1990s Maal has recorded with Brian Eno, who produced for the Talking Heads and U2, and John Leckie, who produced for the Stone Roses and Radiohead. Maal also appeared on Peter Gabriel’s Passion album, Jah Wobble’s Take Me to God, and the Black Hawk Down film soundtrack.
Maal was born in 1953 in Podor, a small town with a population of 6,000 located on the Senegal River, which borders Mauritania. His family is of the Tukulor group of the Fula culture. Known as Hal Pulaar in Senegal, they strictly observe Islamic traditions that
Recorded acoustic album, Djam Leelii, 1984; released Finn’ in Fouta, 1994; appeared on Black Hawk Down soundtrack, 2001; album Missing You named to Q magazine’s “Best 50 Albums of 2001,” 2001.
date from the twelfth century. Chief among their concerns is the preservation of the Pulaar language, as well as their ethnic identity in the midst of Senegal’s many indigenous cultures and foreign traders. Maal’s family belonged to a caste of laborers traditionally associated with farm work and fishing, rather than the Griot caste of singers and storytellers.
Both of Maal’s parents were musical; his father was a farm laborer who was honored with the task of calling his fellow workers to worship at the mosque through songs, and his mother taught him the musical traditions of Senegal. Although his parents wanted him to become a lawyer, Maal pursued his musical interests whenever he could. He initially attended school in St. Louis, the French colonial capital of Senegal, before winning a scholarship to attend school in the Senegalese capital city Dakar. There he joined the 70-member orchestra Asly Fouta, a musical group in which he learned about traditional instruments and music; he also formed his own group, the band Lasli Fouta. His musical education continued as he traveled through West Africa with his griot friend Mansour Seck, a blind guitarist. As Maal explained on his official website: “It’s traditional for young musicians to do that. When you arrive in a village you do a gig…. The next day the young people take you to visit the oldest person who knows about the history of the village and the country and about the history of the music.”
Maal next studied at the Conservatoire des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, for several years. When he returned to Senegal, he formed the band Daande Lenol, which is translated as “voice of the people” or “voice of the race.” Initially concerned with blending Senegalese musical traditions with reggae music, he soon incorporated elements from American soul singers James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, which he blended with the influences of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots Hibbert to create an aggressive form of mbalax, a sometimes spiritual, highly energetic music that marries Cuban and Latin American styles. John Cho defined it in a San Juan Star article included on the Roots World website as “[m]elismatic upper-register vocals of Islamic muezzins with the accompanying Arabic modalities … [that result] in a fresh harmonic mix.” Mbalax features such percussive instruments as sabars (bass drums), djembes (drums with goatskin heads), and tamas, also known as talking drums. Cho noted further: “The rapid-fire dialog between the singer and the tama player is often the climax of a song…. Mbalax also spawned its own high-stepping, high-energy dance called the ventilateur, which raised a ruckus among the pious because of the provocative manner in which the women hiked their boubous and flashed their forbidden legs.”
In 1984 Maal and Daande Lenol recorded the acoustic album Djam Leelii in Paris. Featuring the rhythmic guitar playing of Mansour Seek, it was released in Great Britain in 1989 to positive reviews. In 1994 he released Firin’in Fouta, an album noted for its blending of such seemingly disparate musical forms as hip-hop, Celtic and Breton music, Cuban rhythms, and electronica. Finn’ in Fouta helped launch the careers of Senegalese rap artists Positive Black Soul, and marked as well the inception of the Afro-Celt Sound System, which included members of Daande Lenol, N’Faly Kouyate and Moussa Sissokho, and Irish musicians larla O’Lionaird, Michael McGoldrick, and Ronan Browne.
In 1998 Maal released Nomad Soul, a compilation of individual songs produced by seven different teams of producers, including Brian Eno and Howie B. The album, which was well received critically, also marked the debut of Island Record’s creator and reggae impresario Chris Blackwell’s new Palm Pictures entertainment company. In 1999 Maal released Baaba Maal: Live at the Royal Festival Hall, followed by Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) in 2001, an album in which he returned to an acoustic format.
Produced by John Leckie, Missing you was recorded in a mobile studio in various locations in West Africa. Because many of the tracks were recorded outside, ambient noise crept into the final mix, including the sounds of a village and cricket chirps. Several of the album’s songs reflect Maal’s social consciousness, including “Leydi Ma,” a song about environmental conservatism, and “Fa Laay Fanaan,” a song about the exploitation of the African continent. The album was named to Q magazine’s list of the “Best 50 Albums of 2001,” in which the magazine’s critic wrote: “Not just the year’s landmark world music release, but one of the great singer-songwriter LPs of the last five years.” The review continued, “Missing You is Baaba Maal at his unaffected best, highlighting a singing voice with all the depth of ancient Delta bluesman Charley Patton.” The album further prompted Uncut magazine critic Nigel Williamson to note: “The results are magically atmospheric, with Maal’s intense voice soaring passionately over the relaxed but hypnotic interplay of his all-acoustic group.”
Maal’s concern for his homeland is further reflected in his role as a United Nations Development Program representative and spokesperson on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. He made two musical appearances on the Red Hot Organization’s AIDS fund-raising albums, Red Hot and Rhapsody, a tribute to George Gershwin, and Red Hot and Riot, a tribute to Fela Kuti, the African musician killed by AIDS.
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Baayo, Mango, 1991.
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Hamady Bogle, Mango, 1993.
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(Contributor) Black Hawk Down (soundtrack), Decca, 2001.
Missing You, Palm Pictures, 2001.
Red Hot and Rhapsody, The Red Hot Organization, 1998.
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Maal, Baaba 1953–
Baaba Maal 1953–
“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 Live8 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.
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—James M. Manheim