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.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain