Baaba Maal lights Africa’s Olympic torch

Why did you choose Africa Utopia as a title?
We said maybe it should be how you want to see Africa in the future, going into the 21st [century] in the right way, or about what Africa has in its beauty to share with the rest of the world during the Olympics.

And we end up choosing the name Africa Utopia. Because we know that of course Africa is passing through a lot of turbulence. Problems are happening down there. But also a lot of great things have always been happening on the continent.

We want the rest of the world to notice that, to change a little bit the picture from the point of view of people about Africa. Not just a poor continent, but a continent with beauty, culture and lot of strength.

You are known for speaking about African issues during your concerts. What are you talking about at the moment?
I was travelling in the Sahel talking about the food crisis down there, and how this impacts on what is happening in Mali, for example… and what happened in Libya had an impact on Mali. We need security, we need peace to achieve these millennium goals, and we can use music to talk about all of that.

You’ve said American music makes you sad, because you see the connection with African music and think of how it was taken to the US by slavery.
Yeah, there’s no doubt that some part of it comes from Africa. When you look at this music that comes from North America, even when they express themselves, these musicians on the stage. When they dance. When they move and they shake their body. The way they talk.

[As] an African who knows about the passion of African music, you can see real similarity. You can see the connection, the choice of the colours, the choice of the movement, the choice of the melodies, the choice of the messages.

Have you had to adapt your music to western ears?
When you are a musician you are an artist I can say, and you see a connection between you and who else is in front of you that you appreciate. Collaboration should be very natural. So I don’t force myself to convince Western ears to appreciate what I’m bringing.

When I get up on the stage with Franz Ferdinand to play, I just appreciate their song. I listen to the melodies. I say yes, I know these melodies. It’s beautiful. I know that my voice can work with that. I know that rhythm of the drums, I can feel something coming from me and I don’t force it.

I go with people, or styles or different types of music that I think are part of me. That’s something I didn’t discover, but was already part of who I am.

What was it like to work with Chris Blackwell?
Chris Blackwell is someone who has a lot of respect for musicians in general and African music also, like Jamaican music, and did a lot for our communities. Actually he’s the first one who said to me, I did listen to your voice, I did listen to your music, I did listen to you talking about Africa, and you should do it more and more to represent your continent.

He was encouraging me not to be cutting the connection between me and my community, because he knows that this community needs people like me and I need these communities.

It’s not something that often happens in the business. Some people like him in the business should be saying I want to sell records just do whatever will work, but he didn’t. He was listening trying to know exactly what this art is.

Who has influenced you?
I met the father of Toumani Diabaté, the kora player [Sidiki Diabaté] and he was proud that someone from West Africa was jumping on the stage with these traditional clothes to perform this African traditional music. And he said to me, just keep on doing that.

I met Nelson Mandela, and he said you should be aware that your messages can arrive in the places, the houses, in everyone’s heart. More than what politicians can do. And you should be aware of that and use it to promote all the good things.

I think without all this advice, with all the temptations of being in this business, an artist can be lost and off road sometimes, and I thank them for all of that. Because every time I’m in a project I think that they, and the people they represent in my community, have their eyes on what we are doing with African music.

What we are doing with African culture. How we are promoting Africa. How we are fighting to make a very beautiful [image] of the continent, and to bring hope for our people on the continent.  And also people outside of the continent to be coming to invest in Africa and not to be afraid. To be part of the African movement.

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