Baaba Maal: Tales from the Sahel

I went over to the RNCM in Manchester last night to see the event billed as ‘An Evening with Baaba Maal – Tales from the Sahel’.  The music – an intimate performance by Baaba himself, with Jim Palmer on drums or additional guitar and Mamadou Sarr on percussion –  was sensational.  But the format of the evening was a little disappointing, with a vociferous section of the audience becoming pretty restless after a while.

The advance details for the event stated that ‘Tales from the Sahel will feature ancient Fula stories from Senegal; a discussion between Baaba Maal and the UK playwright and journalist Kwame Kwei-Armah about how such mythological tales have led to the inspiration that is modern Africa; and performances of songs that have emerged from these two apparently divergent strands’.   But there were no ancient Fula stories and the ‘conversation’ between Kwame Kwei-Armah and Baaba was far from revalatory, especially for an audience that was pretty evidently very well-informed about Baaba Maal and his music.

The stage was set with a table and chair for each of the two conversationalists, flanked by Maal’s guitars, Palmer’s drums and Sarr’s djembe, sabar and water drum.  Kwame Kwei-Armah kicked off by saying the evening would consist of an unprepared conversation betwee himself and Baaba Maal, explaining that they had met in Dakar last year when he was artistic director of the 3rd World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, and that the inspiration for the evening’s format came when Kwame spent an evening at Baaba’s house there. As the night went on, the house bustled with friends and acquaintances dropping by, engaging in animated, freewheeling discussions about everything under the sun, with Baaba, fluent in a variety of African and European languages, translating from one to the other for the benefit of those present.

The trouble with this element of the evening was that Kwame Kwei-Armah’s chat with Maal wasn’t especially probing or revealing for anyone who has perused their Baaba Maal CD notes or read interviews with him.  Too much of it was along the lines of Armah saying things like, ‘what a fantastic gig – me on stage with the great Baaba Maal, and getting paid for it!’  We did learn about the important influence of Baaba’s mother (who sang for pleasure at weddings and other ceremonies) and his father’s very different musical preferences.  He was a fisherman, he sang religious songs, and was fundamentally opposed to the idea of a son of his singing popular songs.  His mother also influenced Baaba Maal’s views about women in African society – her experience of polygamy was an unhappy one, as is that of most women in polygamous marriages, according to Maal.

The conversation also made plain the enormous debt that Baaba Maal feels he owes to his lifelong friend and mentor Mansour Seck. Since his father was a fisherman, Baaba Maal was expected to become a fisherman as well. However, under the influence of  Mansour Seck, Maal devoted himself to learning music from his mother and his school’s headmaster. In 1974, after his baccalauréat he chose to study music while also taking a fine arts course in Dakar. In this way he was able to convince his father that he was training to become a teacher – albeit a teacher of music. However, he and his old friend Mansour Seck and were soon recording musical performances at the radio station.  He persuaded the stationa announcer not to mention his name, but eventually his performances became so popular that, one day, the announcer let slip his name – and his father found out.

Little of this would be news to most of those in the Manchester audience who, an hour into the session, with the musical interludes short and the conversation extended, were getting restive, with calls for ‘more music!’  Armah seemed to recognise the way things were going, abandoned a promised audience Q&A with Maal, and handed over to the musicians.  They completed the show with three or four numbers that moved from contemplative passages in which Baaba Maal’s voice soared above his acoustic guitar, to storming finales driven by Mamadou Sarr’s thunderous percussion.  Sections of the audience shook free of the format’s shackles and danced – one or two joining the musicians on stage, where Sarr whipped them to a frenzy.

Baaba Maal was born in 1953 in Podor, in the Fouta province, Senegal. That makes nearly 60 – something very difficult to believe, with his still-youthful appearance.   He is of the Toucouleur or Haalpulaar (pulaar-speaking) people, of northern Senegal, sings primarily in Pulaar and is a deeply-committed promoter of the traditions of the Pulaar-speaking peoples who live on either side of the Senegal River in the ancient Senegalese kingdom of Futa Tooro.  He spoke passionately about his home town, which has featured in several of his songs.

In 1982 Baaba Maal completed his musical training in Paris at the Conservatoire. Mansour Seck joined him and they began touring in various European countries. In Brussels they recorded their first album, Djam Leelii.  I can still remember when the album was released in 1989 in the UK, bringing home the vinyl lp with its emblematic cover featuring a room, photographed through a doorway, that contained traditional wooden furniture and a modern matt black stereo system, red LED glowing.  I recall the moments when the first notes of the opening track, Lam Tooro, flooded the room.  Like the rest of the album, it was beautifully hypnotic, with the two musicians’ guitars and Baaba Maal’s ethereal voice, accented by dabs of African percussion, producing pure magic. It remains one of my most treasured albums, amd Baaba Maal’s best in my view.

In July 2003, Baaba Maal was appointed as a Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Programme. As part of his role, the musician-ambassador devoted a significant amount of time and energy to raising young people’s awareness of AIDS and HIV. In 2006, Maal organised the first Les Blues du Fleuve (River Blues) festival in Senegal. The festival has become an annual spring-time event, linking the countries that border the Senegal River and involving all branches of the arts from music to painting, crafts and public lectures.

Baaba Maal recalls his childhood in Podor (BBC World Service)

Baaba Maal: Baayo

Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Djam Leelii

Mamadou Sarr with Baaba Maalperforming in Ireland in 2009


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