Baaba Maal’s impact extends far beyond music

Senegalese singer-songwriter Baaba Maal speaks to Graeme Green about music making a difference.
Baaba Maal. Photo by Matthew Donaldson
Baaba Maal. Photo by Matthew Donaldson

‘I feel great,’ says Senegalese singer-songwriter Baaba Maal, when I ask how he’s feeling about turning 70 this year. ‘I get to do something I love in my heart. Music gave me the gift to see the world, and to also be connected to my community, family, home town and culture. This balance has made me in tune with myself. It makes me happy.’

Maal doesn’t look or sound like a man readying to hit 70. His spirited new album Being (reviewed in NI 542), mixing traditional African instruments like the ngoni and kora with modern electronic production techniques, also doesn’t sound like the music of a late sexagenarian. ‘With the West African guitar players, playing the ngoni, I asked them to play not just classical songs, but to get more crazy, to be in tune with the power of the percussion and wild vocals.’

Maal called the album Being because ‘to make music and write songs, you have to open your soul and heart, and just be’, he explains. ‘You don’t have to force anything. You let the elements of life come to you naturally, as a human being.’

Another life than one in music nearly came Maal’s way. As a child from the semi-nomadic Fulani people, growing up in Podor on the Senegal river, he was expected to become a fisher. ‘It was hard for my father to understand but then he trusted me and gave me the chance to be a musician,’ he says. ‘Podor was a very cultural town, where my mother and her friends wrote songs. Podor also has people with many West African family names who came to live there. It was an opportunity to go from community to community, listening to their songs. I was a curious boy. I went on a deep journey to understand the culture and traditions of West Africa.’

Maal later studied music in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, then Paris, going on to record albums with his friend, guitarist Mansour Seck. ‘Our band was called Daande Lenol, which means “the voice of the people”. Suddenly, all my community who didn’t have a voice, in Senegal or Africa, said: “Yes, we have a band and a voice.” Every concert we did in Dakar or small villages was for a noble cause: education, agriculture, the protection of the environment.’

‘To make music and write songs, you have to open your soul and heart, and just be. You don’t have to force anything. You let the elements of life come to you naturally, as a human being’

As well as recording solo albums, Maal has collaborated with Brian Eno, Damon Albarn’s African Express, Tony Allen, U2, and Mumford & Sons, and featured on soundtracks for The Last Temptation of Christ and Black Hawk Down. More recently, he worked on music for Black Panther and Wakanda Forever. ‘I’m really pleased those Marvel films don’t show this Africa people mention, of war, problems and disease,’ he says. ‘The films show Africa has the culture, music, costumes, headdresses and jewellery, but also the technology. Maybe Africa is the future.’

Since 2005, Maal has been running the Blues du Fleuve festival in Podor, which takes place yearly on the first weekend in December. ‘The festival is not just music. It’s a place where people can exchange ideas, such as agriculture, education or how to keep girls at school. This was a problem, but since the festival started, I see more young girls in Podor going to school than boys. It’s had an impact on things that matter.’

Maal has long used his voice to go beyond music. ‘I have so many things I want to say, especially in Africa and in Senegal – good things, bad things. If I didn’t have music, how could I say it? Sometimes I can succeed where it’s difficult for political leaders to succeed.’

His NANN-K Trust recently launched the largest solar irrigation project in Senegal, aimed at combatting desertification and supporting local communities through regenerative agriculture. ‘It makes me so happy to think what I can I do for people and what I can bring back to my town,’ he tells me. ‘In Africa, we have the impact of climate change. I live on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and always it’s gaining more kilometres. I said to myself: “I have to participate.” I asked why young people were going to Spain to find opportunities – in Africa they don’t have the job they want in fishing or to do agriculture in a modern way. Solar can make a big impact in Africa.’

Maal believes music and projects that improve people’s lives go hand-in-hand. ‘It’s a process. You make the music, you travel, you make people know about your community and traditions. People trust you. Africa has to move forward, but it has to be its own children that start things. We also have to count on friends and partners around the world who can help Africa develop itself. All of us together will make a difference.’