Baaba Maal

Born : 1953 in Podor (Senegal)
Country : Senegal
Language : English / Wolof
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : world music

The richness of Senegal music cannot be denied. Some artists, like Baaba Maal, manage to reproduce the essential traditions while blending them with more modern sounds. His Toucouleur blood also adds a particular note which rings in his songs. With Youssou N'Dour and Ismaël Lô, Baaba Maal forms a trio which has sent Senegal musical culture rocketing to the top of the international charts.

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    The richness of Senegal music cannot be denied. Some artists, like Baaba Maal, manage to reproduce the essential traditions while blending them with more modern sounds. His Toucouleur blood also adds a particular note which rings in his songs. With Youssou N'Dour and Ismaël Lô, Baaba Maal forms a trio which has sent Senegal musical culture rocketing to the top of the international charts.

    Baaba Maal was born in 1953 in Podor, in the Fouta province, Senegal. He is of the Toucouleur or Haalpulaar (pulaar-speaking) people, of northern Senegal. His family was fisherman, an unlikely background for a musician. But his mother sang for pleasure in weddings and other ceremonies. Young Baaba Maal thus became familiar with a cappella singing and traditional melodies.

    Developing a passion for music, Baaba Maal began playing with friends during the school holidays. In 1974, after his baccalauréat (school leaving certificate) he chose to study music while also taking a fine arts course in Dakar. In fact, he did not really think he would become an artist but expected to become a teacher. However, he and his old friend Mansour Seck joined an association for the promotion of Toucouleur culture, called Lasly Fouta. They were thus part of a group of 70 musicians who toured part of West Africa.

    In 1977 the two apprentice musicians formed a traditional music group, Yeli Taaré Fouta, with another musician, Mbassou Niang. They hit the road and followed the Senegal river to study musical traditions from the ground up. But Baaba Maal still wished to complete his musical training and therefore went to Paris in 82 for further study at the Conservatoire. Mansour Seck joined him and they began touring with a new group, Wandama, in various European countries and Senegal universities and associations. In Brussels they recorded their first duo, "Djam Leeli".

    Daande Lenol

    In 1984 Baaba returned home because his mother had died. He decided to stay. The following year, he created Daande Lenol (The Voice of the people), a group of nine musicians with, of course, Mansour Seck and Mbassou Niang. Baaba Maal tried to develop music close to his roots while at the same time injecting more modern sounds, with instruments such as drums, electric guitar or keyboards alongside the kora or the tama. He sang mostly in Toucouleur language and fully intended to pass on messages, thus adding a political flavour to his work. He soon brought out their first cassette.

    While he was well known in Toucouleur circles, Baaba Maal and his group only became known to the Senegal public in general when they gave a concert at the Daniel Sorano theatre in Dakar in February 1986. The concert was under the spell of the singer, who was a true leader. His stage presence was impressive, and the concert was broadcast by national television, which helped promote the group.

    The following year, he gave a series of concerts in Europe, particularly at the Chapelle des Lombards in Paris. His cassette "Wango" came out in Senegal in 1988. The song "Demgalam" (my language) was about minorities and their right to keep their cultural identity. It identified more precisely with the position of the black, especially the Toucouleur-speaking population, not the moors, in Mauritania, bringing down the wrath of the authorities on his head. Indeed, the artist's cassettes and records were destroyed in Mauritania.


    Almost simultaneously, an English producer, Chris Blackwell of Island Records, found the tapes of "Djam Leeli". He signed Baaba Maal on his world music label Mango.

    It was in fact his concerts at the New Morning club in Paris in November 89 and his Dutch tour that launched Baaba's career in Europe. He also sang on the Peter Gabriel album "Passion", for Peter Gabriel is a specialist in discovering new talent. In 1990, he brought out "Taara", just before bringing out the famous album "Baayo" in 1991, on the Mango label. Although the record was produced in London with all the tools of high recording technology, it was because the music was to be completely pure, back to roots, with the "yela", the Toucouleur rhythm associated with grinding the grain in a traditional society, taking pride of place alongside the singer's swooping voice. This record had considerable success in Europe, especially in England. He took part in the Womad in London, and sang in the concert for Nelson Mandela in Dakar, alongside Peter Gabriel, Youssou N'Dour and Super Diamono.

    "Lam Toro" is the groovier follow-up of "Baayo". The album came out in 93 and was followed by a remix concocted by Simon Booth and Macka B. These dance pieces are not everybody's taste, some feeling that the music has been travestied. In any case, like his compatriot Youssou N'dour, Baaba Maal recorded cassettes for the local market in between the big European productions: "Yélé" in 93, and "Tono" and "Tiim Timol" in 94.

    Baaba Maal was fighting on every front, with the support of Chris Blackwell, of course, defending his Senegal discovery in the best possible way. In 1994, there was a new album, "Firin'In Fouta" recorded in Dakar in the famous Studio 2000, London, and in Peter Gabriel's studios in Bath. Several famous western musicians came to accompany Baaba Maal on this record: Jah Wobble (Bass guitar) David Bothrill (keyboards) and Michael Brook (guitar). "African Woman" is the star track on this album. It was followed by an acoustic tour, with a concert at the Elysée Montmartre in Paris in November. After "Africa Fete" concerts in the United States in June 1995, Baaba celebrated the tenth anniversary of Daande Lenol in Dakar in October, before an audience mainly composed of Haalpulaar people. But the big event of the autumn was Baaba Maal's return to Mauritania for a special concert in Nouakchott on October 19 and 20. The Toucouleur singer had not performed there for eight years.

    International Baaba

    Baaba Maal was nominated for a Grammy Award in the "World Music" category in February 1996. This equivalent of the Oscars for music went to the group Deep Forest in the end, with Baaba Maal coming second. Although he did not win the award, he was still recognised as one of the greatest in his category. In July of the same year, he sang the first half of the famous guitarist Carlos Santana's concert at Wembley Stadium, England, with Daande Lenol. This concert was one in the European tour which went to Holland, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark and Germany. In September he performed in South Africa on the occasion of the "Arts Alive International" festival in Johannesburg. Early the following year, he undertook a big tour with forty concerts in North America, on the wave of interest in Senegal music from Youssou N'dour to Ismaël Lô, and especially the rap group Positive Black Soul.

    Two new cassettes, "Aïwa" and "Souvenirs" came out in Senegal at the end of 96. Here again, the "King of Yela" as some call him, seemed to want to satisfy lovers of tradition at the same time as partisans of modernism and dance spirit.

    In 1998 the new CD, "Nomad Soul" came out under Chris Blackwell's new label, Palm Pictures. The album title refers to the nomadic roots of his people and the traveller's spirit permeating Baaba Maal's work. The Jamaican musicians Luciano and Robbie Shakespeare, and the producers Simon Emmerson, Brian Eno, Jon Hassel and Howie B. are also on the prestigious credits of this record. The inseparable Mansour Seck on guitar, Alioune Diouf on percussion, Hilaire Chaby on the synthesiser, and Assane Ndoye Cissé, the Daande Lenol guitarist, are also present. The CD opens to "Souka Nayo", the hymn to the Peule woman, to a backing of Irish choirs.

    Political involvement

    While travelling around the world, Baaba Maal released an album entitled "Live at the Royal Festival Hall" recorded in 1999. He then came to a halt and settled in Senegal for a while, among his family and friends. Using his influence there, he became very active outside the musical world, and he got involved in several agriculture and hotel ventures. He also endeavoured to draw Western people's attention to the ravages caused by AIDS in his country. Along with his fellow citizen, Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal belongs to a tradition of Senegalese musicians who use their worldwide fame to help their country.

    Back to his roots

    In 2001, the Senegalese artist went back to the studio for his new album, "Missing You" ("Mi Yeewi"). The latter was mostly recorded in Mnunk, a small village near Dakar, which inspired Baaba Maal a come back to traditional Senegalese sounds. Indeed, a lot of Mnunk's background sounds, such as children and animal cries, were integrated in order to reflect the reality of the artist's original environment. However, it is in London's well-known studios of Real World and Abbey Road that Baaba Maal chose to give "Missing You" the finishing touch. He followed up with the album promotion in spring when he gave a series of acoustic concerts.

    Baaba Maal brought the house down at the Café de la Danse in Paris in April and immediately followed up with a week's performance at the Printemps de Bourges. That same year, the Senegalese artist was very present on the Anglo-Saxon stages. He gave a concert in Philadelphia in January, then travelled to London, and went back again to the States in August. He was back there in January and February 2002 before joining Quebec artist Luc de la Rochelliere for a concert at the French Cultural Centre in Dakar, Senegal.

    Youth ambassador

    In July 2003, Baaba Maal was appointed as a Youth Emissary for the United Nations' Development Programme (UNDP). 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. Meanwhile, Baaba Maal continued to tour in the U.S., raising his profile abroad. He returned to Senegal to perform a special "welcome concert" at the UNDP's Pan-African Youth Leadership Summit in Dakar in June 2004.

    Maal took to the stage again in Dakar (2 - 4 July 2004) to celebrate the 19th anniversary of his band Daandé Lénol, performing on stage alongside a host of music stars including Thione Seck, Fatou Laobé, Abuu Jubaa Deh, rapper Bill Diakhou and the legendary drum maestro Doudou Ndiaye Rose. (The only musician missing from the line-up was the group's late kora-player, Kawnding Cissokho.) Baaba Maal continued his role as a human rights advocate on this occasion, publicly appealing for "moral support for deprived children so Africa can forge a future for itself." The musician also proclaimed his solidarity with the Hal Pulaar people (Baaba's family is Hal Pulaar, known in the English speaking world as Fulani.)
    In 2006, Maal organised the first edition of "Les Blues du Fleuve" (River Blues) festival in Senegal. The festival has become an annual spring-time event, hopping between the countries that border the Senegal River and involving all branches of the arts from music to painting, crafts and public lectures. Later that same year, Maal released a new album, "Kettode & Sangoul", then headed off for a major summer tour of America, playing dates in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver.

    In February 2007, Baaba Maal appeared at the African Union Summit, held in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, performing at a gala dinner for government leaders and heads of state. In July of that year he was invited to Charlton Park in the U.K. to take part in the 25th anniversary celebrations for WOMAD (the world music festival launched by Peter Gabriel.) Rumours continued to circulate about the musician's alleged health problems. At the second "Blues du Fleuve" festival, Maal acknowledged that he had been slightly ill but had made a full recovery since.

    Baaba Maal made a notable comeback on the recording front at the beginning of 2008 with a new album entitled "Internationale riche Afrique." The album featured ten hard-hitting songs recorded over a two-year period between London, Philadelphia and Dakar. In promotional interviews for his album, the singer strove to dismiss the clichéd view of Africa as a "continent riddled by suffering and riven by conflict," claiming that this detrimental image has been greatly exaggerated by the media. He insisted that his homeland is a rich, diverse and dynamic continent that has nurtured a hotbed of artistic talent. As usual, several of the tracks on Maal's new album were intended to educate listeners, "Léki Léki", for instance, raising public awareness about the environment.

    Maal spent May and June 2008 on the road, playing a series of dates across Kenya, Belgium and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, he continued his mission as a youth ambassador for the UNDP, speaking on a number of issues ranging from digital technology to climate change and sustainable development.

    Baaba Maal's live album, "On the Road" (featuring a selection of recordings from various concerts around the world over the past decade) was released to critical acclaim in June 2008. The following month, leading British newspaper The Independent listed Maal's "On the Road" as number 1 in its Top 10 World Music Albums. 

    In March 2009, Baaba Maal joined Oliver Mtukudzi and the group Extra Golden on the road as part of the "African Soul Rebels" project. The three acts toured extensively in the U.K. "celebrating the soul of Africa."

    2009: "Television"

    Baaba Maal released a new studio album in June 2009 called "Television." The title was both an indication that this was the singer's own "vision of the world", but also expressed his concern about the power which the TV media exert these days. Baaba Maal branched out in a new musical direction on "Television", collaborating with trendy New York trio The Brazilian Girls who encouraged the Senegalese star to experiment with electro-pop. The album (co-produced by Jerry Reynolds and Maal and mixed by Jerry Boys) found Maal moving away from traditional West African inspiration and putting a more contemporary spin on his arrangements. Maal's new album also included a series of multi-lingual duets with Sabina Sciubba, The Brazilian Girls' Italian-German singer.

    Baaba Maal kicked off an extensive European tour that summer which kept him on the road from August to October 2009. 

    August 2009

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