“I think the musician’s role is to give advice, to warn people, and to make them aware of what they might not have thought of themselves. We use melodies and harmonies to make songs enter your mind.” So declares the celebrated Senegalese master-musician BAABA MAAL of the songs on Television, his multilingual album, released in June 2009. With its subtle blending of electronic dance elements with the timeless tradition of West African musical traditions, the record is a groundbreaking successor to 2001’s Grammy-nominated Missing You, released the year Baaba closed the South Africa Freedom Mandela Concert in London’s Trafalgar Square and headlined at the Hollywood Bowl.
The enigmatically named title-track refers to the relatively recent phenomenon in Africa of ubiquitous TV screens. “The television set is like a stranger you didn’t ask for coming into your living room,” explains Baaba. “You don’t care about who he is: he just seems to come from nowhere and gives you information.”
Television was produced jointly by Baaba Maal and Barry Reynolds, once the guitarist with the legendary Compass Point Studio Band, and mixed by Jerry Boys. In addition, the tune “Song For Women” was produced by John Leckie. “I use that song,” explains Baaba, “to talk about how women can be much more powerful in Africa, which can be really helpful for the entire continent. We should encourage that, and I sing about it to give them more power.”
Television has been recorded intermittently over the last three years, during which time Baaba has kept up his rigorous global touring commitments, including his work on the large-scale Africa Express project, in collaboration with Damon Albarn. This year, 2009, he has headlined The African Soul Rebels tour of the United Kingdom; and appeared as the guest on an edition of the esteemed Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4. In another field altogether, in 2008 Baaba Maal created the soundtrack for the Playstation and X-Box game, Far Cry 2; at the beginning of the decade he had fulfilled the same function, working with Hans Zimmer, for the Oscar-winning Ridley Scott movie, Black Hawk Down.
As he has made clear, Baaba Maal’s mission in West Africa extends beyond his music. He is committed to the concerns of families, young people, and the future of the continent, as is reflected in his role as Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Program, about which he says: “It strengthens my determination to work harder to contribute more to improving the living conditions of disadvantaged people of the African continent, especially young people, whose future is seriously threatened by illiteracy, poverty and HIV/AIDS. When I am talking about Africa, it is about how Africa will grow into the new millennium. This is why I really wanted to make music, so people can listen more to the music and the messages I am talking about.”
The image of uplifting the African continent has long driven Baaba Maal. To this end, in 2003 he played the Nelson Mandela 46664 Concert in Cape Town in South Africa; and the next year he performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, for Dr. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental campaigner who won that year’s Peace Prize. In 2007, he played at the African Union heads of state summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and also performed at the Live Earth Concert in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Back in the U.K., Baaba Maal has consistently topped the bill at prestigious events: in 2005, he not only headlined one of the BBC Proms Concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall, but also Glastonbury festival and the Africa Remix festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall; in July of that year Baaba led off the Make Poverty History March at the G8 protest in Edinburgh.
Television was made in London and Dakar, the Senegalese capital. Baaba Maal worked on its eight songs with various musicians, but most specifically in a collaboration throughout the recording with singer Sabina Sciubba and keyboardist Didi Gutman, both members of New York’s Brazilian Girls, who blend electronic dance music with a diversity of eclectic styles.
Searching for a diversified form for Maal’s music, it was Barry Reynolds who suggested he work with the pair. Immediately admiring their sound, Baaba Maal soon found further points of creative connection. Working on the song “Tindo,” for example, whose subject is the guidance meted out to Senegalese children as to their future responsibilities, Baaba Maal found that Sabina’s responses, sung in Italian, accurately mirrored his own lyrics: ‘‘I see language as an instrument. Sabina told me that she could just feel the meaning of the words that I was singing. This is the power of music – it can give you advice even if you do not understand the language.”
“Sabina is European but takes the name of Brazilian Girls; Didi is from Argentina, with its strong connection with Africa. I come from a tiny town in West Africa, but I’m connected to these people through my experiences, and to my English writing partner Barry Reynolds who has worked with people like Marianne Faithfull and recently, Grace Jones and Antony & The Johnsons, writing songs in different areas of life. I thought that this was a good combination, what I was looking for. I think really magical things came out of it.”
Although the future of all of Africa is one of his priorities, Baaba never forgets his home nation of Senegal: in 2002 he sang the Senegalese National Anthem at the opening match between France and Senegal of the FIFA World Cup Finals in Seoul in South Korea – Senegal won the game.
In Senegal, Baaba Maal came from humble beginnings. But he has learned and traveled and now speaks and sings of empowerment, enlightenment, and peace. He was born in Podor, a town with a population of 6,000, on the banks of the river Senegal that separates the country of the same name from Mauritania. (In 2006, returning to his hometown, Baaba Maal established the now annual Blues du Fleuve 3-day festival in Podor.) Baaba's family is Hal Pulaar, known in the English-speaking world as Fulani. He is not from a family of griots – the hereditary caste of artists and communicators. His father worked in the fields but was also given the honor and responsibility of using songs to call the worshippers to the mosque. Baaba’s mother was a musician who sang and wrote her own songs, educating her son in the musical forms of the area and encouraging the young Baaba to value intelligent and thoughtful lyrics.
At the same time Baaba was listening to Black music coming out of America, people like James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Etta James. Later he caught up with Jamaican musicians such as Toots Hibbert, Bob Marley, and Jimmy Cliff.
Baaba went to school in St. Louis, the original French colonial capital, and, on winning an art scholarship, on to Senegal’s modern capital, Dakar. There he joined Asly Fouta, a group of 70 musicians, and spent his time with the group learning as much as he could about the local musical instruments and how they work. On leaving college he toured West Africa with longtime friend, guitarist and griot Mansour Seck, soaking up more knowledge: “It’s traditional for young musicians to do that. When you arrive in every village you do a gig. This makes you friendly with all the young people who are in the village. The next day the young people take you to visit the oldest person who knows about the history of the village and the country and about the history of the music.” Baaba then lived in Paris for several years, studying at the Conservatoire des Beaux Arts, with ears still wide open. On arriving back in Senegal, Baaba formed his band Daande Lenol (Voice of the People).
As his work with the UN DP signifies, Baaba Maal’s vision extends beyond music. He often credits his much-loved mother with giving him a broader and more sympathetic view of the world than many of his contemporaries. Baaba is a citizen of the developing world who has carved out a place for himself in the first world. He can speak and sing to and for Africa with unprecedented authority.
Please visit baabamaal.tv.