Son of Africa for SA

2011-05-20 15:21

The continent celebrates Africa Day on Wednesday. Lesley Mofokeng speaks to Senegalese music star Baaba Maal about its significance and his expected performance in Joburg on Saturday.

At 57, are you still supple and nimble-footed on stage? What can your fans expect when you perform here for
Africa Day?

It will be a special concert, with just three musicians on stage. It’s a very stripped-back style with just acoustic ­guitars and a bit of percussion. I’m afraid there will be no dancing, but I hope my fans will still enjoy the show.

Are Senegalese youngsters familiar with your music, or have they turned to ­hip-hop – especially with the success
of Akon?

I think so, but they do love their hip-hop. Everybody in Senegal is proud of Akon and his achievements, and it’s great that he is also respectful of his Senegalese heritage and has inspired a new generation of artists in Dakar.

I am a good friend of his father and Akon used to ­attend some of my first shows in the US when he was a young boy. We recently met both in New York and Dakar.

How are you involved as an activist on the continent?
I’m involved with the United Nations ­Development Programme as a youth ­emissary and I always campaign on issues that are important to me.

For me, the most important of the Millennium Development Goals is education. Without ­education, we are nothing.

What do you think is the greatest ­challenge facing young Africans?

We as Africans face many challenges – HIV, malaria, poverty and conflict – but I would like to see more emphasis
on the importance of education for all children as this will only benefit the ­future ­generations.

We need to build more classrooms, employ more teachers and make sure that children have access to computers and the latest technology.

Developed nations can help with this, but it must be a partnership and not just gifts.

In Fulani, we have an ancient ­saying: Don’t give a fisherman fish when he needs a net.

What’s your opinion on African music?
In Africa, that’s the way we learn our ­history and our responsibility to society. I asked my grandparents about our history and culture, and about the three places where we lived in Podor Ndioum and the other side of the river in our fields in Mauritania.

Their stories and legends were all in song and this is something that is found throughout African music.

What does African music need to help it grow?

Firstly, we need to be open to outside ­influences, and then we must not forget and support our own musicians. It is very much the style of African music to ­collaborate with other musicians. Through this, we learn something new and help the music grow.

What’s your relationship with other ­Senegalese musicians such as Youssou N’Dour and Ismael Lo ?
I guess you could say that we are ­brothers. We see each other at many ­concerts, both in Senegal and across the world.

Last year, I was with Youssou at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where we did a tribute to Miriam ­Makeba (also with Angélique Kidjo).

He pulled me on to the stage where I sang with him and his band. I am sure I will return the favour soon.

Do you feel that you are recognised more in Europe than you are in Africa?

Not really. I get recognised more in west Africa than anywhere else and it’s difficult to go out.

We have just finished a big tour for the 25th anniversary of my band, Dande Lenol, and we went to Congo, ­Gabon and Mauritania. It was great to see such big crowds come out. In Europe’s big cities I am lucky as I can still get to walk on the streets without a fuss.

Do you record music to make money or are you following your passion?
If I wanted to make money then I would have been a lawyer like my father wanted me to be. My greatest passion has ­always been music. I have been lucky to make a living from my passion.

I met Nelson Mandela with other ­musicians on London’s Trafalgar Square a few years ago and he said something profound: The role of musicians is so ­important as a lot more people listen to the words and songs of musicians than they do to politicians. And so we should use this gift that we have for good.

What is it like to sing in Pulaar? Is ­language ever an impediment to getting the music across?
I am very proud to be both from Senegal and a Fulani (Pulaar), a minority ­nomadic ethnic group, and so it’s only natural for me to sing in my
own ­language.

In the music, you can hear the emotions, so it’s not so important to also ­understand the words. The Fulani have ­travelled for centuries, and our music is a result of meeting different people and hearing their music and stories. I have ­also sung in English and French.

Which three artists, dead or alive, would you collaborate with, and why?
Bob Marley. He was the first true musical superstar to come from a developing nation, and his legacy and message is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.

Secondly, Miles Davis, whom I think was the most outstanding musician of the 20th century. I would have loved to have the opportunity to sing while he played trumpet.

Thirdly, James Brown, for his incredible energy and legendary stage shows. I don’t think I would ever be able to keep up with his dancing, though.

What would you like to leave as your legacy?
I honestly don’t know. Perhaps it is yet to come, but hopefully I will have ­encouraged some of Africa’s youth, ­especially young girls, to go to school and work hard while they are there.

What is your message to African ­teenagers this Africa Day?
That the future of Africa is in their hands. Respect this, and work to make the continent a better place for all to live in.

» Baaba Maal performs in Newtown Park, Joburg, on Saturday at the Africa Day Concert, which begins at 4pm. ­Habib Koite, Professor, and Tumi and the ­Volume are among the other ­performers. ­Entrance is free.

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