Where The Magic Happens: Baaba Maal Interviewed

Kevin E G Perry travels to Senegal to meet the man who is treated more like a prophet than a musician by his fellow countrymen. Festival pictures by Julian Hickman

Portrait by Rob O’Connor

Baaba Maal has a bed big enough to sleep six people in either direction. We’re at his house in Podor, his hometown at the northernmost point of Senegal, and he’s giving me the tour. If they made MTV Cribs in West Africa this is the part where he’d sweep in and say something faintly embarassing like: ‘This is where the magic happens’, but instead he just laughs and tells me it’s actually only a guest room, and the oversized bed is “just to be a little bit exotic.”

We’re here for Blues Du Fleuve, Baaba’s annual celebration of music drawn from the four countries connected by the Senegal river: Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal itself. The festival opens with Baaba arriving on a multicoloured fishing boat regatta, oar symbolically aloft, and sees performances from the likes of Orchestra Baobab, Petit Yero and the spellbinding Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali. Baaba makes a cameo appearance during Noura’s set, treating us to a coming together of two of Africa’s finest voices.

This time two years ago, Baaba’s guests here included Johan Hugo Karlberg, of The Very Best, and Mumford & Sons guitarist Winston Marshall. After the festival, they stayed behind to work on songs for what would become Baaba’s new record The Traveller, his eleventh album and first since 2009. It turns out this guest room with the big bed, converted into an impromptu recording studio, really was where the magic happened.

“We spent a week recording here after the festival,” explains Baaba. “Winston was sat here and Johan set up his computer there, with plenty of beers. We just let ideas come from every one of us. We recorded all the noise that was surrounding us, from the music of the call to prayer, to children playing outside, to the women making the food and talking with low voices. It all came together.”

As the name suggests, The Traveller is inspired by Baaba’s lifetime spent on the road, both here in West Africa and across the planet. As well as the session in Podor, Johan also oversaw further recording both at Baaba’s house in Dakar and in London.

“The record itself travelled a lot,” says Baaba. “We were going there, coming back, going there, coming back. In travel you go away, but you always come back home. For me, what travel feeds you is something that you don’t get from a lot of things in life. I think when you come back home, you realise that you’re still you. When you travel you pretend to change, because you have new experiences and see and appreciate new things, but when you come back home you always know that the base is something that was built so strongly it can never be destroyed. Things can be added to it, but you’re still the same – just with new experiences.”

Baaba was born here in Podor in 1953. It’s a quiet town of just 12,000 people, an outpost on the Senegal river with a colonial fort which once traded in gold and slaves. On the opposite bank is Mauritania, and if you follow the river east it will take you through Mali to its source in Guinea. Baaba, who belongs to the semi-nomadic Fulani people, grew up by the river and in the nearby rural village of Djoum.

During my time in Senegal we drive back to visit Djoum. Baaba is truly adored in this part of the world, revered as a cultural and social leader as well as a singer and musician. On the outskirts of the village, we’re met by a phalanx of taxi drivers who’ve brought their cars to form a guard of honour for Baaba’s arrival in town. As we move off in convoy, he explains just how rare it was to see a car when he was growing up. “When I was younger I travelled a lot by boat because this road was not here,” he says. “We didn’t have roads, we just had the river. In these villages, when you see a car you might wait for four or five days and then you’ll start to hear the noise of a car coming from far away. We would run out just to see it passing. We were always so excited: ‘We saw it! We saw it!’ We would talk about whether it was a red car, or blue or yellow. I remember as a child starting to think: ‘One day I want to go to see where these people are going, or where they are coming from. I want to discover who they are.’ Then our grandmother or grandfather would tell us stories about their journeys and travelling, and it made our dream to travel even stronger.”

He came from a family of fishermen, but as soon as he was old enough Baaba struck off into the world. He went to school in the old colonial capital of St Louis, at the mouth of the Senegal river, then moved to continue his studies in Dakar. After that, he moved to Paris to study music at the Conservatoire des Beaux Arts, but also “for adventure.”

At the same time, Baaba was discovering the voice which would make him one of Africa’s most famous singers. He had dreamed of becoming a singer from childhood, when he would listen to the radio and worry that Fulani music was being ignored. He wanted to hear more songs sung in his native tongue, Pulaar, but also saw the connections he could make between traditional local styles and blues, jazz and Cuban salsa. While in Dakar he and his childhood friend Mansour Seck, a blind griot, joined a 60-piece orchestra called Asly Fouta. After Baaba had moved to Paris he invited his old friend to come to France to join him.

“When I said to myself that I’d stay for a few more years, I made him come,” remembers Baaba. “It was at that time we started our international career, because we recorded some of the songs for the album ‘Djam Leelii’. He is a key member of my band Daande Leńol [which means ‘Voice of the People’] because he’s a co-founder. He is a great support when it comes to tradition, because he comes from a family of griots. They are story-tellers and musicians, so he can make the link between me and these families. The griots are big travellers. They can go away from their families for two or three years just to follow migrants, to play for them and to remind them of where they’ve come from, who they are and to not to get lost on their journey. When people from here come back they always know that they are Fulani. They don’t lose that.”

Over the last four decades, Baaba has grown into a sort of contemporary, globe-trotting version of the griots who would traverse West Africa. Having worked with him for the last three years on this record, Johan has seen this first hand: “In Senegal and a lot of West African countries, musicians and griots are very important, because they’re storytellers and teachers. People have a lot of respect for them regardless, but for Baaba – my impression of Baaba is that, especially in the North, they see him as a prophet or something like that. It’s crazy to see much how power he has, but he uses it so responsibly.”

Baaba and Johan first met in 2012, on the Africa Express train in the UK. “We weren’t talking about an album at that point, he was just really into what we were doing with The Very Best – somewhere between African music and dance music,” remembers Johan. “I think the reason he came to me was that he wanted something quite electronic, but the first track we did together in London: me, him and Seye, was ‘Jam Jam’, which is a very hard, desert blues, hip hop-y thing.”

‘Jam Jam’ is one of The Traveller’s standout tracks, and its roots in desert blues inform the rest of the album. “We did a lot of dancey, housey tracks, one of which came out a couple of years ago, ‘Suma Rokia’,” says Johan, “But the more we worked, the more time we spent in Senegal, and the more we talked, I think we both started to realise that something Baaba hadn’t explored in his Western albums was desert blues and the heritage of his music. We wanted to find a way to make that more modern. On the record there’s a lot of desert blues guitar, kora and all the other traditional instruments brought together with what I do.”

While recording in Podor and Dakar, Baaba was particularly interested to see his home country afresh through the eyes of his guests. “I was so curious to ask Winston and the conga player Will [Fry] if it was their first time in this part of Africa,” he says. “I said to them it must be a shock, because when you come to Africa from the West there’s a lot to take in. There’s a lot of things to see and a lot of noise to hear. Here it’s multiplied by a thousand times because it’s all in your face: the sound, the noise, the colours and the movement. And the smells! Just the smells that surround you and you don’t know where they’re coming from – perhaps a new food? I think it must be very impressive to someone who’s never come here before how many things you can get in your face in just one day.”

He’s right, of course. All around us in his home are the smells of ceebu jën, the Senegalese national dish, being cooked for his guests and the sound of musicians warming up or arriving en masse to pay tribute to Baaba with raised voices and talking drums. Somehow, at the centre of it all, Baaba manages to maintain a serene presence.

“One thing I love about working with Baaba, especially in Senegal, is that it’s so chilled out,” says Johan. “You sit around, you talk, you drink tea, you wait, then you record a little bit. Almost all of the record was recorded outdoors. It’s such a calm way of working compared to working in the West. I got to know Baaba really well because of that. We chatted about all kinds of stuff. He’s a very interesting guy with a very interesting life, and he’s been involved in so many amazing, positive things all over the world.”

Despite that appearance of serenity, Baaba’s world is a hive of activity. More than a pop star, he’s a statesman and ambassador for the Fulani people. During the festival he plays host to the ambassadors from the UK and Nigeria, and he takes delivery of a shipment of mosquito nets from Senegal’s Minister of Health which need to be distributed in the region. People come to him because he is, in so many senses, the voice of his people.

When I ask Baaba what job title he gives himself, he laughs. “I don’t know!” he says. “[Different] things have just come over time. I’m a singer and a musician, but I’m very popular here. I think that these times that we’re living in call for everyone in the place that they live to do what they can. To participate, to emancipate, to educate, to help, to organise people. If they go to a businessman they might say: ‘We need your knowledge.’ If they come to me, they’ll say: ‘Baaba we need your help because when you call people to come together, they come.’ They might ask me to organise a concert because they want to build a hospital. They’ll say: ‘We have this amount of money, but we need the rest.’ I ask the band and they say yes. We come because the time is asking it. I’m very happy to do it.”

Baaba Maal’s The Traveller (Marathon Artists) is out now. He tours the UK this month, with a headline date at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Wednesday (January 20)

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