Baaba Maal, voice of the people

The Senegalese musician's “Africa Utopia” festival puts a positive vision of the continent centre stage.

You wouldn’t be mistaken if you’d detected in recent years the steady ascent of a being known as the “celebrity-come-human-rights-activist”. It’s a trend marked by choice publicity photos and megalith aid gigs, humbling revelations and a rhetoric of global togetherness - all for a just cause, even if the image of Madonna in Malawi rings a little hollow. But few have grasped the true potential of stardom as a means to incite change quite like Baaba Maal. One of the greatest musicians to emerge from the west African state of Senegal, and certainly one of its most well-known, Baaba Maal has thrown himself into the fray of social activism with a zeal rarely seen in one whose career could so easily have followed a path of relative ease, filled with travel and high-profile performances. Instead he’s set his sights on a lofty goal – a vision to uplift the African continent.  

Appointed as a youth emissary for the United Nations Development Programme in 2003, he has worked to improve the living stands standards of young people whose futures were threatened by illiteracy, poverty and disease. In early 2012 Oxfam announced Maal as their global ambassador – he held a concert in Matal, Senegal to raise funds for the food crisis appeal in the arid region of North Africa known as the Sahel. He has performed for Live Earth, the Nobel Peace Prize Concert and led the African Soul Rebels (a radical political/feminist group of musicians who toured Britain in 2009).

He comes to London this summer with an event that feels like the culmination of two decades of activism and musicianship. As part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World, Maal will perform at, organise and host a festival he’s called Africa Utopia. It’s an undertaking as lush and upbeat as it sounds – with hundreds of performances from some of Africa’s most renowned musicians and poets taking place over the course of three weeks. There will be dance and literary events, art shows and film screenings, along with debates on the main issues facing contemporary Africa. Continuing his emphasis on the role of young people in the continent’s future, Maal has engineered a network in which “young delegates” from Africa will engage with the festival and send their experiences home via social media. Africa Utopia aims to “reveal just some of what Africa has to offer the rest of the world through the transformative potential of culture” – an unapologetically joyful celebration of all that is beautiful about Africa and its people.

For Maal, this kind of affirmation is his life’s work. I went to meet Maal at his Notting Hill studio to hear a bit more about how things were shaping up. He was full of optimism. “Jude Kelly,” he says, referring to Southbank’s artistic director,  “she’s seen most of my shows, she’s seen how every time I’m putting together new combination, not just music, but all those other elements of culture like drawing, or painting, dancing or ballet. She thought maybe this was a good opportunity for the Olympic Games. She called me and we sat down, and I was excited. I like to dream together.”

Maal is certainly known for his unexpected combinations when it comes to performance. He’s happily jumped on stage with a number of improbable partners - Franz Ferdinand and Damon Albarn, to name only two – and he’s looking forward to surprising people with Africa Utopia’s line-up. It will include collaborations between American banjo virtuoso Bela Flek and the great Malian singer Oumou Sangare, British violinist Max Baillie’s duet with Gambian kora player Sura Susso, and Maal’s own Word Sound Power, a spoken word performance featuring international authors reading to the music of Baaba and his band. He muses on music’s power for universal communication. "We don’t need to speak the same language. We have our instruments, our voices, our inspiration, and in one minute we can be together saying the same thing. The music allows it. That is beautiful to use.”

It’s a diverse festival bound together by a collective heritage of African influence. But for Maal music does more than merely part the boundaries of language and culture, its universality serves as a powerful vehicle for social change. “It’s a beautiful activism,” he explains, his hands moving carving the air with quiet enthusiasm.  “You listen to a piece of music and it’s something you enjoy, but you also learn something at the same time. It is a good way to move the spirit of people. When you use art and culture to talk about important things, you make a print that goes in the mind and the heart of people. It’s simple, because culture is quite simple – to have access to it, to admire it, to try to understand what’s behind it, so you can use that for the good things in life. It’s the 21st century, and some things have to change. Music can help the thinkers, the leaders, to decide what to do.”

Maal’s own life is a model of development and reinvention through music. Born in the fishing town of Podor on the Senegal River, he studied at music conservatories in Dakar and Paris and worked briefly as a teacher (“but I was not a good teacher, because I didn’t want to spend a full day in four walls,” he laughs). He never dreamed he’d find the kind of success as a musician he now knows. “I didn’t have in my head to be a musician,” he says. He remembers thinking as young man: “Whatever I’m gonna be, I’m going to be a musician as part of that, because that’s how you do it.”

But Maal soon realised he wanted a life where music was more than a side project. He was inspired by the choices his fellow musicians who had left the more conventional path to travel, to perform, and to share their music with others:

I realise that is what I wanted to do – really – compared to what I felt I should do when I go out from the university. I thought, maybe it is much better for me to have my life. That was when I started to have plans, to make choices, to have a band, to make things happen around it. But at the beginning I didn’t see it coming, it was just natural. There was not a plan. I think in a life like my life you don’t follow a plan, you let it go.

With 16 studio albums to his name, Maal’s style has evolved, but has always been marked by evocative vocals, dulcet guitar playing and unexpected turns of rhythm. His sound is both traditional and ahead of its time.  Try Bouyel (1991) for its heart wrenching simplicity, Television (2009) for its waves-lapping-the-shore, mellow Afro-chic (Maal wrote with New York-based electro band Brazilian Girls). At the heart has always been a loyalty to the power of collaboration – with bilingual tracks and international beats on most of his albums. Maal admits that his style is apt to change based on who he’s working with.  He cites “travel” as his main source of inspiration.

“I’m a nomad," he says with a smile. "I like to write music with people from all backgrounds, Celtic, Brazilian, urban, electronic ... Me, I come from a traditional background, but I’m not afraid to go like a nomad into things like that. Traveling all over the world, talking to people, it’s really interesting to see how people are living, how they are thinking. Even the five minutes you spend with someone – just to say hello, to ask where they come from, it’s really inspiring. It opens your eyes and mind.”

The transition from musician to activist was not a premeditated one, rather a natural progression born of a natural urge to do good. He dismisses the mantle of “activist” that I bestow upon him throughout our conversation, preferring to substitute “activism” with something more straightforward: “I just do something I think is right”.

“It came naturally,” he says of his humanitarian work. He goes on to explain the origins of his charity work, how his band was asked by villages to perform at events where proceeds were reinvested in the local community.  “In Senegal, they started to ask for a band to perform. There was no professional management, just an association who was trying their best to bring people to the stadium. Sometimes you’d get five thousand, ten thousand people who would pay the money for a ticket, and then they would take the money into their village and start to build classrooms, or to buy tables for the classrooms, or start developing projects with women and young people. And I started to feel myself more concerned not with the music, but how can we use the music to participate, to educate, to stand up together, to participate in developing the country. It started little by little.”

The ease with which Baaba Maal discusses such work belies the difficult question of social conscience for those raised on African soil who are lucky enough to “make it”. Maybe it comes from being an artist who knows well the reality of hunger, drought and poverty, who cut his teeth in front of an audience headed home to political and social uncertainty. It’s an experience many western musicians might not be familiar with. But it’s something Maal knows well.

My band is called “the voice of the people” in my language. People who are connected to me, people who are coming to see my show, I don’t want to see them sick, I don’t want to see them poor. I want to see them happy. I don’t want them to say, ‘he is the only one who is moving forward, we are behind’. I want to see the whole group move together. It gives me a lot also, it is inspiring to me. When I see them happy, when I see them dancing, when I see kids going to school, when I come to villages and I see people welcoming me, they are giving me something. So I give something to them also.  If I wish to see that more often, I have to wish for them the best. And do my best to participate. It’s an exchange. When you do that in Africa, you see it in the eyes, and the way people talk to you, you see all the respect it is bringing to you. All the love it is bringing to you. Not just because of the music, but because of what you are standing up for.

Maal wants to see things change for Africa. He wants to see a good education system and mobility for young people. “I was very, very lucky to get the chance to do what I wanted to do,” he says with humility. “It’s not something everyone can do.  But with a good education, reading books, taking the time to know what’s going on in the world, with access to technology, then all these kids can do the same thing.” He wants to see women’s rights improve. He remembers the pain of watching his mother, a singer, denied the opportunities she should have had. “It was hard for me to see,” he recalls, “I grew up in a family where I saw my mother, so talented, so good … but the restrictions on top of women were heavy. Maybe she could have been like one of the women coming here, to this festival.” 

He pauses, but wraps things up on a positive note. “But things are starting to change. We are starting to recognize all the talents in all the different fields in Africa. It’s hard, because we need organization all over the continent, to help this talent express itself. And we are working on that. It’s good to see that it is starting.”

Africa Utopia, with all its optimism, might be an antidote to the fear and the hopelessness that so often surrounds Maal’s troubled continent. His is a message from the inside out – there is a long way to go, but don't forsake the beauty of culture or the power of shared knowledge. “We’re gonna put on the stage the positive aspects of Africa,” says Baaba. “Not the Africa whose coming to beg for help, or to say we are sick, we are poor. What people can get from Africa and say wow, this is the legacy of this continent.”

I left Maal’s studio feeling invigorated - armored, if only temporarily, against the ills of the world by his infectious certainty that music, art, and collaboration are the most powerful instruments for shaping a new brand of activism. No, sorry, not "activism" - doing something right.

"Africa Utopia" will run at the Southbank Centre from 3 - 24 July. Baaba Maal performs at the BT River of Music on 21 July on the Africa Stage (London Pleasure Gardens, London E16).  For further information, visit www.btriverofmusic.com

Senegalese musician Baaba Maal hosts "Africa Utopia" at the Southbank this summer.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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