African music

Baaba Maal celebrates 25 years of Daande Lenol
Birthday tour for the Senegalese singer

© DR
04/11/2011 -

After crossing the USA from west to east with his show Tales from the Sahel, the Senegalese Baaba Maal is in France to perform a dozen concerts celebrating the 25th anniversary of his group Daande Lenol. A good occasion to look back over the past quarter of a century and hear his thoughts on a period that saw him become one of the ambassadors of Africa.

RFI Musique: What kind of man was Baaba Maal in 1985 when he created Daande Lenol?
Baaba Maal: I’d just got back from France where I’d been living for five years, and I had no idea where my musical career was going. I was in shock after the death of my mother and I was simply there to see my family. Coming back down from the north with friends, we made a recording in Studio 2000 in Dakar. It went down well and gave me some ideas. We set up a first group called Wandama, which lasted for a year. I was still hesitating between staying in Senegal or going back to France and doing my own project, but I decided to set up the group Daande Lenol with which I’m currently travelling the world.

(Palm pictures)

Did you know exactly what you wanted to do or did it develop over time?
Musically, I had quite a clear idea. What wasn’t obvious was how to go about it. I was playing music from northern Senegal which slotted into traditional folk music: in Dakar, people like to get together and sing songs from their lands so as to hang on to their culture. I’d taken that approach for many years, but it was time to move on and do something more structured and modern. I wanted to bring together my cultural background, everything I’d learned during my travels in West Africa, before I even came to France, and from my time at school, where I learned about music from outside Africa.

What non-African music were you first attracted to?

French pop from the yéyé period, Johnny Hallyday and company. We were fascinated by these music-listening devices, the singles. When we got back from college or during the holidays, us kids from Saint-Louis used to enjoy getting together to listen. Later, we got into North American music. We’d listen to James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, and then Cuban music.

Would you say the way you see and make music has changed in 25 years?

When I get into the studio with someone like Brian Eno, and play tunes on my guitar that come from the kora, the balafon or the xalam, and then put them together with electronic music, that’s a whole new approach. But when I make traditional music with people I’ve never met before, or get up on stage with Franz Ferdinand to play one of their numbers or my own, it’s still the same old thing: human beings expressing themselves and communicating through music, ultimately boiling down to emotion.

What do you think about the way music has developed in Senegal during the same period?

I’m really pleased. To start with, I used to listen to singers of typical traditional music at the Daniel-Sorano Theatre, and they were really lovely voices. You’d take a voyage to different parts of the country and even through history, it was fascinating.

Then modern bands sprang up like Star Band Number One and Orchestre Baobab. At the same time, some people were saying that music had no future, which can be a scary thing to hear if you want to be a musician! But that’s not what happened. I’ve seen musicians become increasingly aware of the role they can play to promote culture. I’ve seen them organise themselves into professional outfits, and that’s changed mentalities. I’ve also seen governments lavishly welcoming musicians coming back to the country. Ultimately, talent is still going strong. Up until now, although we’re under attack from music from outside the continent, every few months sabar players come up with some new contemporary sounds. So they take music further. Like in Jamaica, where they’ve left reggae and moved on to dancehall.

Are you keen to pass on the baton?
A life’s work or artistic career can only be noble if you’re able to sit comfortably in your armchair and watch others carry on with what you started. That’s what any mother or father aspires to. A while ago, I went to see the President, Abdoulaye Wade, and I told him that we had to find a way to save all the cultural information I’ve got at my place. When we were young, Monsour Seck and I went to over 300 places. We left Senegal for Mauritania, travelled through Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso to Côte d’Ivoire. Historians, musicologists and musicians would give us a few lines of music, some rhythms, songs or explanations of lyrics. They add up to knowledge that we have a duty to pass on to the next generation, it doesn’t belong to us. 

Dates are 5th November in Marseille, 7th in Nancy, 9th in Chartres, 10th in Bordeaux and 12th in Mantes-la-Jolie.

Translation: Anne-Marie Harper

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