The Baaba of world music

Senegalese star Baaba Maal was one of the original icons of the 1980s world music boom and he’s still finding new ways to cross over. Robin Denselow spoke to him

This is an important month for Chris Blackwell, the man who founded Island Records, and for Baaba Maal, the African star who still records for him. It’s the 50th anniversary of Island, and the event has been marked with a series of concerts at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in west London, featuring everyone from Paul Weller to Amy Winehouse.

For Blackwell, one of the most exciting shows will be what he calls “our Muslim night” on May 28, featuring Yusuf (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) and Baaba Maal, the Senegalese veteran making his first appearance with his experimental new band. He will be playing songs from Television, his first new studio album in eight years, in which Blackwell was closely involved.

Africa has long been one of Blackwell’s interests. In the early 1980s Island became arguably the first commercially successful world music label, thanks to its success with Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade, and the Island subsidiary label Mango later released albums by Salif Keita, Khaled and Baaba Maal. When Blackwell sold his Island empire in 1989 Maal stayed with him as the main artist signed to his new label, Palm Pictures.

The aim for both of them was to do something new with the Television album. Blackwell wanted “something different, to intrigue you and pull you in, something you can play all the way through, with one track leading to another and interwoven together like a very long single. Maal felt much the same: “I’m not saying I was getting bored with what I was doing before, but I wanted the chance to work with different people and have different elements in my music and in my ears.” On the new album he has done something really unexpected by teaming up with members of the New York electronic dance band Brazilian Girls (in truth, they aren’t Brazilian and have only one female member).

The result is a dramatic change in direction for Maal. He is joined on many of the songs by the Brazilian Girls’s cool and breathy vocalist, Sabina Sciubba, often singing in French, and the slinky, rhythmic backing is dominated by guitar and keyboards, provided by her colleague, Didi Gutman.

So why was Maal so keen on this new emphasis on keyboards? “It may seem bizarre,” he says, “because you may think that the album is not so African, but when you talk about Africa you see images, you see a landscape, and the African instruments can’t give me the sound I wanted. The keyboard is the appropriate instrument — it can give the sound of wind, or the leaves of the trees: any sound you want you can get from keyboards.”

Several members of his own band, Daande Lenol, took part in the recordings, so the talking drum is there, the djembe is there, the sabar is there and so is a traditional Western acoustic guitar. There is no kora, because Maal has decided his band’s brilliant kora player, the late Kaouding Cissoko, can’t be replaced. But he is joined, once again, by his lifelong friend, the blind griot Mansour Seck, with whom Maal recorded his first acoustic album back in the mid-1980s. “He’s still acting like a griot, advising me on the lyrics. He’s always there to say, ‘That’s not how you should say it!'”

The album is far more commercial than much of his earlier work and includes his first composition in English, the easy-going Dakar Moon. But other songs in Fulani, Wolof and French are more serious, dealing with the impact of the media on Africa and the fascination of television for children.

“I wanted to talk about the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for the continent, such as giving power to women and being optimistic about the young generation. These are serious messages.”

In Senegal Maal is involved in education projects, works for the UN Development Programme and uses the annual Blues of the River festival in his home town of Podor as “a platform where people come to perform — and we have lectures”. His aim with this album, he says, is to reach the new generation of young Africans who are “connected, going to cybercafés and watching video and TV”, and he plans a series of videos “to explain what’s behind the songs, rather than just writing things on the cover of the CD to explain them”.

So what would he say to those who argue that this new album is too commercial? “People will always complain, but I enjoyed singing on it, and so it comes from me.” —

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