Move over, Bob Geldof

African special - Observations on the musician's view

''Culture is a way of helping people understand Africa: what the reality is." Baaba Maal, the Senegalese musician, is well aware of the "hopeless" stereotype attached to Africa by the west. So he champions African culture in order to combat public apathy. "Culture shows people something can be done, and that trying to help the conti-nent is not pointless." How does he know this? "Because I live there and I know the energy of the people - culture can use this energy and share it around."

The superstar, who blends reggae and rock with Fulani (Peul) rhythms, was in London to speak at the British Museum for the Africa '05 season. Called "the Nightingale" for the clarity of his voice, he is a UN youth ambassador for HIV/Aids.

Although western enthusiasm for helping Africa is rising, Baaba Maal is well aware that it is capricious. He insists that attempts by Tony Blair and others to reconfigure Africa on the western radar must not be transitory, "something that just happens this year - 'Africa, Africa, Africa' - for one year only". The same applies to the self-styled Africanistas Bono and Bob Geldof. "They have to be very sincere about what they are doing. They cannot just treat it like a facial." He alludes to an Aids charity concert he gave in Cape Town with Bono and Geldof in 2003. "It was great, but more Africans should have been involved."

He says: "Musicians and other celebrities can become role models and symbols, especially for young people. We cannot just play football for them or go on stage for them - that's important, but we also need to come to them." Above all, one has "to be conscious of what life as an African is like". Baaba Maal knows this better than any western celebrity. When not recording, he travels to remote regions of the continent to play concerts in rural areas and discuss problems with poverty-stricken villagers. This openness is a Senegalese trait and one that Baaba Maal believes enabled his country to tackle the Aids epidemic so successfully - it has an infection rate of just 0.8 per cent. "No one has the definition of truth," he says. "It can only come out of people who talk."

He came to London, he insists, partly to challenge the view of Africa's "otherness". "There should be Africans speaking, not only in the west but also in Africa itself." Despite his optimistic outlook, he believes that "some parts" of the west do not see the importance of helping Africa. "But if you're not interested in the governments or the people or even the culture, then you are not going to be interested in the resources that are there."

He is frustrated that the west writes Africa off as a perpetual basket case. "It is not a continent apart, but closely involved in the world." He also insists that it is beginning to turn the corner. "It may not be the leaders who are benevolent, but the people - especially the young people - want change. They have the power to make it happen." He cites his own experience: born into the fisherman caste in the village of Podor, in the Fulani-speaking part of northern Senegal, he broke from tradition by becoming a singer. The ability of young people to challenge conformity in this way may eventually change attitudes towards such issues as women's rights. "Once you've set something like that in motion, its momentum makes it unstoppable."

Geldof said recently that he was sick of being "Mr Bloody Africa". He may have his wish; Baaba Maal is in the wings, and he is tired of waiting.

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