Baba Maal, be ★★★★☆
In a career spanning 40 years, Senegalese musician Baaba Maal has risen to become a towering figure in world music. The son of a fisherman, Maal grew up in Podor in the far north of the country and was expected to follow his father’s career path. He didn’t, but he studied music in Dakar and later at the Beaux-Arts school in Paris. Maal has released over a dozen albums, mixing traditional African and Western sounds and collaborating with producers including Brian Eno. His latest album, 2016’s The Traveller, was a fairly calm and meditative affair, as was his collaboration with London folkies Mumford & Sons on their Johannesburg EP the same year. His new album, Being, is a completely different beast.
The seven tracks are percussive and urgent, fusing traditional rhythms and trance-like chants with intense electronic arrangements. Produced by Johan Karlberg, who recently penned Self Esteem’s acclaimed Prioritize Pleasure album, Being gives the 69-year-old’s music a more modern and claustrophobic edge. This is by far the most contemporary sounding album of Maal’s career.
The album is mainly sung in Pulaar, Maal’s native language, but there is also some Wolof (Senegal’s national language), with lyrics about the impact of technology on modern life and how new generations of Africans can make themselves heard in a increasingly noisy world. But you don’t have to be a Pulaar or Wolof speaker to understand the heartbeat and message of the album. The music does it for you: the urgency of the sounds – and the juxtaposition of traditional plucked instruments with modern programmed instruments – gives this sense of old and new colliding.
The beats pound. I wouldn’t be the first listener to notice how similar the sound is between the Senegalese sabar drums on opening track Yerimayo Celebration and massive Indian dhol drums. The song is a pulverizing sensation, with the percussion as the driving force. The song Freak Out, featuring Karlberg’s band The Very Best, begins with heavily distorted vocals before segueing into a mid-tempo stomp, complete with snippets of warped bass and lefty vibes. It’s music that would be considered adventurously contemporary, even if it was released by someone half Maal’s age. It’s not all in-your-face percussion and chart-friendly modernism. Maal’s vocals have a soothing quality to them, especially on tracks like Casamance Nights. With a length of eight minutes, this percussion-free song closes the album. The reflective atmosphere comes as a kind of tonic after what happened before.
Maal has updated his sound just as the spheres of world music and pop music seem to be getting closer and closer. Beyoncé’s Renaissance album from last year had clear afrobeat influences, especially on tracks like Move, which featured Nigerian singer Tems. Also in 2022, Nigerian ‘Afro-fusion’ star Burna Boy teamed up with Ed Sheeran.
Maal’s personal influence also seems to be spreading – and it’s about time. He recently provided the voice of Wakanda on the soundtrack for Afrofuturism blockbusters Black Panther and Wakanda forever, working with the soundtrack producer by showing him around Senegal to find musicians. A renowned polymath at home – Maal’s studio in Dakar is a hub for artists, musicians, designers, environmentalists and students – he is now becoming better known elsewhere.
So his is something of a sonic attack. People who loved The Traveler may feel – rightly so – that the melody plays second fiddle here. This is certainly not music to sweat on WOMAD’s Sunday mornings. This is stand-up-and-listen music that grabs attention in surprising ways. Being suggests that Maal, who turns 70 in June, is far from mellowing as he ages, but remains as eager and excited to explore new frontiers as ever. James Hall