Baaba Maal is Africa’s most important musician. He is unmatched in the most traditional or in the hippest of projects. He’s as highly regarded at home as he is abroad and he’s a tireless spokesperson for ordinary Africans. He gave Fly one of the few interviews he did during his recent visit to London
STOP PRESS: Pictures of his London gig are now available…
Baaba surveys a sea of issues and problems looking for root causes. He gets out of Dakar and into the villages and the furthest reaches of Senegal, Mauritania and darkest Europe. He talks, he sings but it is obvious that this is a man who listens and learns. “We Fulani have a saying, ‘misunderstanding does not exist. Just people who don’t talk’.”
sometimes I want to come back to the purity of traditional music for the generations that love that music — because I belong to these people and I grew up like them, discovered music like them and believe in music like them
I’m the last journalist of the night before he heads off to Bush House for an interview on the World Service. He looks tired and slight compared to the image his lion’s roar of a voice conjures up.
It has been said that there are two Baaba Maals: a hip Western remix kid and a traditional African singer. When I ask him if he recognises his reflection in that description he agrees warmly, “that description makes sense. It depends on where I write things or play music or produce music. In general, I try to make a mix between the two with instruments from the West and Africa or a style from Africa and the West but sometimes I just want to come back to the purity of traditional music for the generations that love that music — because I belong to these people and I grew up like them, discovered music like them and believe in music like them.”
I am not going to say it is going to be finished soon. It will be finished when it is ready. I can tell you it’s not going to be like Missing You, it’s going to be something else
Later on, his eyes light up when he describes the great enthusiasm for mixing up music there is in Senegal. Be it jazz, hip hop, reggae, traditional, Senegalese folk will have a bit of everything please. “In Senegal, we listen to every kind of music. We are a very open country — that’s Senegal and you can see it in the evolution of Senegalese music from before independence right through to the rap music of today. It’s so open that any kind of music that comes to Africa, even if it is not African, the people can make it Senegalese.” I start to think that the remixing and the roots are all trademarks of a truly African soul and that the remix versus traditional argument is like arguing whether a carrot is orange or crunchy. As Baaba says, “something can be contemporary without losing its traditional qualities.”
His last album Missing You has to be one of my favourite albums of all time. It was certainly a big seller outside of Africa but Baaba made it for the people back home that had loved his music for twenty years. “It was not like Firin’ in Fouta, it was a very different album, very calm. A lot of people in Africa said, ‘at last! We thought we were going to lose him to this Western mix style. He is coming back to do something that we know.’ A lot of people were missing it.”
Young people have to break some laws like I did. I was not a griot…
So what’s next? He is excited by the music he is working on with his band but will he tell me? No chance. Mischievously he laughs when he says that I will just have to wait and see what he has been up to. “I am not going to say it is going to be finished soon. It will be finished when it is ready. I can tell you it’s not going to be like Missing You, it’s going to be something else,” he says pointing at my copy of the album on the sofa between us. My bet is that he has been working with the incredible array of hip hop talent in Senegal, but like everyone else, I’ll just have to hold on.
Although Baaba is single now, he has a son from a previous marriage who now lives in Belgium working in fashion. As he points out though, African families are very large and an obvious source of strength. His own father was a Muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer and if his voice was like his son’s there would have been no need for amplification. “He was very important for me for two reasons, he gave me a love of singing and he helped me with spirituality. He would always say that if you have success in life without a strong belief you can’t organise things; the foundations have to be strong.” Contrary to some interpretations of Islam, Baaba believes “every belief needs music — but some people are very extreme.”
This 52 year old (who looks like he is in his late twenties) has a mutual love affair going on with the youth of his country. He is adored the length and breadth of the country by all ages and touched by the many young people who look to his example of breaking out from his pre-destined role as a fisherman to become the most loved (if honorary) griot.
The following night, at the British Museum he says to cheers that just as women are the heart of Africa, their rights are the basic building block of progress towards ending poverty, dealing with HIV/ AIDS and better government. When asked how that could happen with patriarchal religious views holding such sway, he says simply, “Young people have to break some laws like I did. I was not a griot… We want to see an African woman lead the government. They can’t stop it.”
When Tony Blair and others want to do things they have to go directly to the people who are in need and not the governments
It is said that in 2000, the hip hop generation forced a peaceful change of government in Senegal and it is clear that Baaba sees in this generation the courage to break out of ways of thinking that have held their people back. “In Togo now or in Senegal’s elections, the people said, ‘No. This is what we want. When you listen to the rappers, they are saying what they want and even an 80 year old can see that they are speaking the truth.”
Baaba Maal could easily stay in Dakar to Paris, but he regularly gets out to the furthest reaches of the country to play gigs that see fans walking days to attend. Often the people will stay a few days and inevitably there is time for people to meet and talk and discuss solutions to their problems in what he calls the African way. “I go to small villages to play concerts and to meet people and we stay with families. They (the local people) can meet us. I can assure you that the Africans know what is going on on Earth.”
As important as music is, Baaba along with other great West African musicians including Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita has pledged to discuss big issues. “Sometimes we have to leave our instruments and go and talk to the people. People listen to us because of our position and it is necessary to talk about HIV/AIDS because some people think it is a joke or it will never happen to them. If you say it in a song, it is fine, they are going to dance to it but they are not going to take it seriously.”
Baaba knows that it is not enough to talk to his own people when Africa’s problems are not entirely of its own making and solutions are not exclusively within its grasp in this interconnected world. “When I saw Nelson Mandela talk about the deaths in Africa, when he was in England, I said, ‘Thank God’.”
Awareness and good intentions are not enough though as previous failed attempts to help Africa have shown. “Talking is nice but what is more important is to see they are sincere.” There must be follow up on each and every project and sustained commitment. “When Tony Blair and others want to do things they have to go directly to the people who are in need and not the governments. They have to make sure the money gets to the school and the African people who are going to make it happen. It is not the first time people have tried to help Africa but in the past the people in the middle stopped the help from getting to the people and spent it on guns, war, their families or just sent it back to Switzerland.”
when you get tired of being tired, you start to think about solutions
Baaba is also critical of those who fly in on business class and discuss HIV/AIDS in luxury hotels without ever going out and meeting the people whose needs they are supposed to be addressing.
For those in the West that think Africa’s problems are not theirs, he offers a carrot and a stick. Share the wonderful art, music and culture of Africa. Enjoy the warmth and welcome of its people. But Africans are no respecters of boundaries, (indeed, had they always been there would be no people outside of Africa) they are people of the Earth and they will travel whatever governments do to close their borders. Unless the health issues of the continent are urgently addressed, HIV and AIDS will spread even more rapidly than now outside Africa as well as within.
Baaba Maal has put himself behind the Africa 05 programme in the UK and is as enthusiastic about the art as he is the music. But he is more wary of political initiatives. “Africans have an opportunity to show how they see themselves and the continent. One year is not enough but it might be enough to change the mentality of people. It can’t be just like a fashion. We have a saying, ‘before you hand out the prizes see what someone has done not just what they promised to do’. It’s easy to help the continent but they have to understand where the people need help.”
We end the interview on an upbeat note, “What gives me hope for the future? Whether you are a village, a city a country or a continent: when you get tired of being tired, you start to think about solutions. And the young people they know about the suffering. They are strong, they are clever and the energy is there to do something.”
Pictures from his Africa Remix gig, April 1, 2005 at the Royal Festival Hall
You can hear a wide variety of Baaba Maal’s music on his Palm Pictures artist page
And there is more at www.baabamaal.tv
Baaba Maal headlines at Glastonbury 25/6/05 and the BBC Proms 13/8/05