Baaba Maal – Voice of the people

One of Africa’s biggest stars, Baaba Maal, will be playing ten concerts across the UK in March with his acclaimed band Daande Lenol (Voice Of The People) as part of the African Soul Rebels tour. The bill also features the Kenyan-American benga-rock band Extra Golden, and Zimbabwean giant Oliver Mtukudzi with the Black Spirits.

Maal is clearly excited at the prospect.

‘It’s always great to tour with other people. It’s a great opportunity for us to play together, discover together, share our music and bring new ideas and combinations to people.’

His unique voice and frenetic stage dances are as youthful as ever, but Baaba Maal is not new to the game. Born in the 1950s in Podor in Senegal, his early influences are as diverse as his music suggests.

‘My parents were musicians. My father was a religious musician, a muezzin. My mother was a popular singer. I watched them. I used to sing with my mother. Everyone noticed I had a great voice – me too! I realised I wanted to be a musician.’

From an early age Maal was aware of his Fula heritage.

‘The place where I was born in central Senegal was an important cultural centre. Nomadic groups from Mauritania and other neighbouring countries would stay in our town, and the Fula people shared this nomadic culture, which of course included music.’

Maal grew up during Africa’s wave of independence movements. He was strongly influenced, he says, by the theme of liberation that marked the music of the 1960s, particularly in Guinea, with legendary orchestra Bembeya Jazz getting special mention.

Maal’s music education was furthered by a postgraduate music scholarship at the Beaux-Arts University in Paris where he spent several years with his close friend, the blind griot guitarist Mansour Seck. After a number of prior cassettes and albums, they collaborated to produce the beautifully serene ‘Djam Leelii’ in 1989. The album was my introduction to West African music and it remains an absolute classic. Mostly complex string patterns overlaid with Maal’s crisp, high, distinctive voice; sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, here he set a precedent for producing songs that evoke an unusual range of human emotions.

‘When I write a song or go to the studio or go on stage to perform’, he says, ‘I sing music like melodies. But the words that come from my mouth are, I think, the words of the people. It is the people inside me. In Africa, people live with music. Music accompanies ceremonies that teach people about responsibilities and society.’

Having played concerts all over Africa, Maal is familiar with many of the challenges facing the continent and takes an active position when it comes to using his music as a platform for social and health issues. He represents the United Nations Development Program as a spokesman on the issue of HIV/Aids in Africa as well as being an ambassador for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 campaign. Two decades on Baaba Maal remains a key figure in African music. He has performed all over the world and produced over a dozen albums, at times embarking on brave fusion experiments incorporating ragga, rap, salsa and even Breton harp into his repertoire. He has worked with a range of producers, including Brian Eno on 1998 release Nomad Soul.

More recently he took part in Africa Express shows in London, Lagos and Liverpool – the live collaboration project conceived by Damon Albarn feature African, American and UK musicians including Franz Ferdinand, Amadou & Mariam, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Daara J and many more.

The new édition bootleg On the Road, a collection of his favourite live acoustic performances, is the artist’s first album release in seven years. Acoustic sets will define Baaba Maal’s African Soul Rebels performances this March – it is always a huge treat to hear him play with Daande Lenol, a line-up which still includes long-time collaborator and friend Mansour Seck, this is an all-time classic African live music act. Not to be missed!