(As published in Offbeat ... )
Nothing gets an interview off to a better start than a friendly introduction.
A different tradition, however, seems to prevail in the West African Republic of Senegal, the home of the world-music superstar and Mango Records recording artist Baaba Maal, who spent a few days last month conducting phone interviews to publicize his forthcoming nineteen-city tour of the U.S. "Before you start the interview," warned an ominously deep-voiced someone named Mr. Raamas, "I would just say that there is a very strict, ten-minute cut-off. Keep an eye on the time, or you will experience an abrupt end to the interview."
Great. So much for the question about whether "Baaba Maal" means "evil sheep noises" in Latin.
Anyway, whether such stringency derives from a clause in Maal's contract, a requirement of his Senegalese-Islamic beliefs, or the simple fear of incurring a trans-Atlantic phone bill will probably remain a mystery. Why, the very pronunciation of "Senegalese-Islamic" takes up fifteen seconds of valuable interview time! So it's not as if any clock-watching journalist will ever ask.
But there's no question about why Maal was on the phone in the first place: His upcoming stateside tour may turn out to be the world-music event of the year.
"Some of the songs [from my new album] I'm going to play on the tour," Maal said at the two-minute mark. "It's going to be for me a way to experiment, to see how people are going to feel about them."
The tour--which, like the new album, is as yet unnamed-- will hit New Orleans' House of Blues on Wednesday, March 5. If Maal's last album, 1994's well-received Firin' in Fouta, is any indication of what the HOB crowd may expect, the evening will consist of songs whose titles leave the unilingual in the fog ("Sidiki," "Nilou," "Ba") and whose proper execution will require--and receive--the enthusiastic performance of a large ensemble adept at playing noisemakers both foreign (kora, hoddu, talking drums) and domestic (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums).
It is, in fact, the high quality of Maal's African-European musical blend and the snakecharming tenor singing he does on top of it that has propelled him to the head of a class that already includes star pupils like Salif Keita and Maal's fellow countryman, Youssou N'Dour. It's a blend he’s been preparing for over a decade. By the time he and his group Daande Lenol released their first "official" album, 1985's Wango, they had already woodshedded over the course of seven "unofficial" albums.
With the worldwide release of Djam Leelii, an acoustic album recorded with the griot Mansour Seck and the oldest of Maal’s four domestically available albums, Maal's reputation took off in earnest. Both the toney British music magazine Q and the rootsy folk magazine Folk Roots voted it one of the best albums of 1989.
Baayo (1991) and Lam Toro (1992) followed, the former another acoustic album and the latter Maal's first overt attempt at his transcontinental blend. By the time he released Firin' in Fouta, the world was as primed for it as he and his band were.
Recorded partially in Dakar, Africa, and partially at Peter Gabriel's Real World studio in Wiltshire, England, Firin' in Fouta turned what had been latent possibilities into palpable realities. In "Sidiki" Maal wove authentic Senegalese chanting into a Eurobeat-inflected rhythm track. In "African Woman" he sang exuberantly of the "beauty, wisdom, and importance of the African woman" over horn and rhythm charts straight out of Havana. In "Swing Yela" he incorporated the rapping of Positive Black Soul, and in both "Njilou" and "Tiedo," he used that most European of musical effects--the string section.
And according to Maal, his new album, which he hopes to finish in May, will sound like the logical next step.
"It's in the same direction. I can call it the succession of Firin' in Fouta because it's still a kind of mix between African traditional music--the sound and ambiances from Africa--mixed with my experiences in the Western countries and their way of playing music. It's also a meeting between me and some people who are very involved with Western music, people like Brian Eno, who is the producer of the album, and Simon Emmerson, who worked on Firin' in Fouta, but I'm going ahead in these experimentations with African music, also. I think it's going to be great."
Coming from lots of other performers, that last sentence would be bragging, but coming from Maal, it’s probably just the truth. Either way, it only took him two seconds to say it, leaving him just enough time to expound on the somewhat unfortunate differences between experiencing live music in his culture and experiencing live music in ours.
"The way people come to see a concert is not the same. I think in America people come to try to understand where this [music] comes from, to see how it's built, to discover something. But here people know everything that you do and can play it too. So a concert, for example, is not just a musician who plays, but everyone who plays with you--it's the whole people, the fans, the public itself who makes the concert, who makes the ambiance.
"But I think the most important difference is that, in Africa, even if the music is getting more commercial now, it was, at the beginning, something that grew up with the society and teaches it something. It's not just something you make to make money. You have a role to play. I think in America the music is completely different.
“People think about how much money it's going to get them before they think about what it's going to do for the people."