The new album from Senegal’s Baaba Maal marks a crossover from specialist world music to music that the whole world can enjoy. No, he hasn’t sold out – the songs are still African. But they have catchy pop tunes with foot-tapping, summery beats and some are sung in English or French as well as his native language. He is still African, but he looks dapper in his black designer shirt and jacket, he is playing Glastonbury without irony …in short, he has arrived.
“I think Television is a new departure. Still with African elements – you can still hear the talking drum, and this is the image of Africa. I’ve been travelling with Western musicians so this is me Baaba Maal and my vision of the future and my vision of the world.”
He’s talking to me in the basement of Phonica Records in Soho, which in a way is his home turf since it houses the exhibition celebrating fifty years of Island Records…charting his successes since he signed to them twenty years ago, along with other legends as diverse as Bob Marley, The Slits, PJ Harvey and Roxy Music.
“Island Records was a road for me. We discovered black music… James Brown, Cuban, reggae from Island Records meant the ears of the listeners became familiar with what we could bring to music.”
Instead of sticking him in a studio in London, Island records sent Baaba Maal back to his home village of Podor in the north of Senegal to record with local Fulani musicians. “This company respects my community. Chris Blackwell is someone who did tell me ‘Baaba your voice must have a meaning for your continent, to correct the image of people in the continent’.”
It is an extraordinary voice – all the more so since Baaba Maal does not come from a long line of traditional musicians or ‘griots’ but has studied at university and the Conservatoire in Paris. On stage in Soho, he tells how he travelled to Brazil and brought back some great singers. But, he says, when they got into the studio they were not so great and it took a while before they could work well together. There is a sense that he is still experimenting, always trying new things – even the DVD being launched next week is still a work-in-progress and he watches keenly the audience’s reaction to the preview.
The sweaty crowd of of musos, journos and PR princesses hum and sway and applaud the DVD for the new album. Baaba looks relieved and settles into a short acoustic set including ‘Dakar Moon’. This is a song he’s written and sung in English as he moves into a new way of working, with multilingual lyrics, African music and worldwide appeal.
He is an ambassador for Senegal, and for the whole of Africa. Yet there is no preaching here. It is pop, not propaganda. He explains the title track of the new album, ‘L’homme dans la television’.
”Every one of us is the man in the television. It is a wonderful instrument…if you use it to educate the next generation.”
That’s the neat trick he has accomplished – to save the world, or at least the continent, just simply by being Baaba Maal.