Being Baaba Maal

2002-01-31 11:37

New York - The new war film Black Hawk Down has made headlines for its slick special effects and battle scenes, but many viewers may come away wondering about something altogether different: the plaintive African voice that haunts the soundtrack.

That voice, ranging from a melancholy wail resembling the muezzin's call to prayer in the Islamic world to a tender croon, belongs to Senegalese singer Baaba Maal.

The film, which depicts a vicious 1993 battle between an elite group of US forces and Somalis in the streets of war-torn Mogadishu, may seem like the wrong vehicle for Maal's positive, upbeat music.

But in an interview at the start of a month-long North American tour, Maal said he thought the contrast was effective. His lyrics on the lead track Hunger, in his native language of Pulaar, call on people around the world to wake up and take action to prevent famine, war and human suffering before it's too late.

Maal's four songs on the blockbuster movie's soundtrack mark yet another step in the evolution of this innovative artist who has helped redefine the "world music" genre with his eclectic mix of styles and sounds.

Nomad soul

Over the years, curiosity has led Maal to explore - and absorb - musical traditions from Latin to Celtic.

"Things are coming into my music from my experiences in life, he said. "I travel a lot, I meet people ... music is one of the best ways to show that musicians, people from different extremes, we can get together, listen to each other and just go with the heart and make a song."

Maal, who belongs to the nomadic Hal Pulaar ethnic group of northern Senegal, grew up steeped in the traditions of the West African region of Fouta, a largely Muslim area made up of swaths of Guinea, Mali and Mauritania and Senegal.

Maal said he was blessed to live in a region with such a rich cultural history, one that transcends modern borders.

"I grew up in the middle of all these cultures so I had the chance to learn a lot of things when I was young from the whole of West Africa," he said.

"History is the reference point in African culture because it always comes back to history."

Like his Senegalese countryman and world music superstar, Youssou N'Dour, Maal also finds the time to give something back to the community that he acknowledges has given him so much.

When not touring or recording, Baaba Maal is a spokesperson for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to educate people about the dangers of HIV/Aids in African villages.

But Maal has had to resist elements of the very cultural heritage that enriches his music.

The Hal Pulaar abide by a caste system, and Maal was not born into the griot caste, which yields singers and poets charged with recounting tales of heroes and kingdoms past.

Maal, who learned many songs from his mother, grew determined to pursue his dream to be a musician and singer.

"Even now, a lot of people are not free to do what they want to do, they have to respect the fundamentals of the caste system," he said. "So I was like the first one who broke this law by saying: 'I'm not going to be a fisherman, I'm going to be a musician."'

He was eager to explore the world beyond his village as his studies took him to the capital, Dakar, and then abroad to Paris.

"I wanted to know the world, to know what's happening in the world and to meet people," he said. Upon his return to Senegal in the early 1980s, Baaba and his childhood friend, master guitar player Mansour Seck, formed a band called Daande Lenol, or "voice of the people" in the Pulaar language.

This talented and close-knit ensemble has since produced eight albums and toured the globe many times over.

But after years on the road, Maal (48) said he longed to record an album of acoustic African music, his first in more than 10 years. He returned home to Senegal and began composing songs on guitar.

Remembering his roots

Missing You (Palm Pictures) was the result.

Recorded outdoors in a small village outside Dakar, the album has an authentic and intimate quality that Maal said is what he longed to achieve. Under the night sky with crickets chirping and the sounds of village life in the background, the group cranked out an impressive array of songs.

While using indigenous instruments and call-and-response style singing, Maal also experiments with Cuban rhythms, or a blues riff. This music is hard to categorise as simply African or Senegalese.

Released shortly before the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, this is a timely album that conveys a message of peace and understanding that resonates loud and clear.

The live show ends with the new album's finale Allah Addu Jam (God give us peace), a quiet message that grows to a booming crescendo.

Now, perhaps more than ever, Maal sees the arts as a way for people to understand and respect other cultures as well as averting conflict.

"This is why I think this tour is very important ... more natural and more from the heart," he said. "People are coming to listen and it is more true to show that yes, the world has really changed, but if people really want to go forward, we can still do it."