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Baaba Maal, voice of the people

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

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

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