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Voice of the people

Baaba Maal believes that African music can be a political force - a means to empower citizens, educa

The Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Maal is no ordinary pop star. When he returns from touring in Europe, North America or the Far East, he travels to the old French garrison town of Podor, situated on the banks of the river that separates Senegal from its desert neighbour, Mauritania. He exchanges his jeans for bright West African robes, greets his family, and sits down to listen to his fans.

"When I get back home after a tour, I go out at night and play in the small villages near my town," he says. Back in his jeans (or rather, a sharp denim suit), Baaba Maal is lounging on the leather sofa of his record company's offices in west London. His youthful face - it is hard to believe he is now in his mid-fifties - lights up when he talks about Senegal. "The next day, people come to visit me: groups of young people, or women, anyone who has a problem that they want to discuss. This is the traditional way of dealing with things. We're all part of the same community - we just sit down and talk together."

Baaba Maal is one of Africa's best-known musicians, internationally famous both as a master of authentically West African musical styles and as someone unafraid to mix them with anything from blues to funk and folk. His upcoming shows in the UK (he performs in the African Soul Rebels tour) are likely to be equally experimental: on his last visit, he played with Damon Albarn and, more improbably, Franz Ferdinand. His many collaborations might suggest a globalised aural soup, but in practice, they are rooted in a fierce sense of place and history.

"If I hadn't had the chance to grow up in Podor, to be influenced by my family and friends, by the culture, to know all the traditional instruments and how you put them together, it wouldn't be possible for me to collaborate with anyone," he explains. "You have to know exactly what you have before you can work with someone else."

On his home turf among the Fula people of northern Senegal, musicians are more than simply entertainers. Folk songs and melodies are constantly adapted to argue, persuade, convey information and pass down knowledge between the generations. Master musicians become community leaders, spokesmen and arbiters of disputes; hence the audiences that queue to consult Baaba Maal after a show. "If the leaders have a problem with the rest of the community, or there's a conflict between two towns, it's the griots they consult," he says. Baaba Maal is not from a family of griots - the hereditary musicians of Sahelian West Africa - but his success in Senegal and abroad has brought him the same status and responsibilities.

"We use music to talk to the people because this is the language they really understand," he says. "Music, in Africa, is a way to know your history. It's a way to know your responsibility to the place where you live and the people you're living with. It's a way to educate you." He explains that in the traditional setting in his part of West Africa, every stage of life is marked by a ceremony, each accompanied by a different kind of music. If a young girl is going to be married, for instance, older women hold a party for her and her friends and sing to them about the experiences and duties that await them.

Baaba Maal himself grew up by the River Senegal, where his father was a fisherman, hearing and playing music from across North and West Africa. "Where I grew up, everyone was a singer, or a dancer, or doing theatre," he remembers. "It could easily have been someone else who became Baaba Maal." He continued his studies at the conservatory in Dakar, and then, through his area's colonial connections, at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But his real musical - and political - education came from an old-fashioned great adventure. At the end of the 1970s, he set out from Podor with his childhood friend Mansour Seck, a blind griot, in search of the old music of West Africa. Baaba Maal laughs with delight at the memory of their trip.

"This is how the old musicians used to study, because there was no conservatory, no radio, no television, no recording," he says. "But your music travels from village to village before you, so when you arrive people want to see you." The friends spent almost two years travelling across rural West Africa, through Senegal itself, eastward and north to Mali and Mauritania, and then south, to Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. They were welcomed with great excitement wherever they went. "We were bringing what was, at that time, a very new sound - traditional acoustic music mixed with western guitar - and everyone was curious to hear it," says Baaba Maal. "Everyone wanted to participate: they gave us histories of their villages and areas, they gave us songs, they gave us advice on how to stand up and play African music in front of African audiences."

The journey turned out to be an exercise in preservation as well as discovery. The villagers told the two artists that changes in society were eroding old customs, and that music was being lost along with them. In the years following independence in 1960, people had begun to leave their communities to travel to the big cities - Dakar, Nouakchott, Bamako - in search of money and opportunity. The stories the friends heard formed their view of African music as a political force: a means of empowering citizens, educating young people and keeping communities together. "I don't think it works for young African people to leave their families," says Baaba Maal. "In an African family, you're all connected - you want to be with them for every occasion. If people choose to go, it's only because the economic situation is so bad."

For him, social activism isn't a western-style add-on to a profitable career. He sees himself as having a double role: on the one hand, during tours such as African Soul Rebels, he is an ambassador for the kinds of music and people he encountered on his long journey through the subregion. "I discovered that African traditional music is not behind: it is as complex and diverse as any western music," he recalls. "I believed that one day I would show people that music from North America really came from Africa."

Even more important to him, however, is his work with young Africans. In 2003, he was appointed a youth emissary by the United Nations Development Programme, and he now spends much of his time performing for young people and working on improving education. He argues that music gives young Africans a connection with the histories of their own communities, self-confidence, and something to be proud of. "They don't get this when they're sitting in the cities thinking about the west," he notes.

Yet although Baaba Maal's values are conser­vative, his own career is anything but. He has recently contributed vocals to the video game Far Cry 2, he has a new, "very electric" album due out in the spring, and his ambition is to return to the film studios of LA, where he worked on the soundtrack for Black Hawk Down. He laughs when I ask about this eccentric mix of projects. "I'm someone who loves to travel and try things I've never tried before," he says. "That's what's great about being a musician."

The "African Soul Rebels" tour will be in the UK from 3-14 March. For more information log on to: http://www.musicbeyondmainstream.co.uk