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Senegalese Songbird Baaba Maal Shines at SFJazz Festival

Wearing purple flowing robes, Baaba Maal takes the stage at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. Seated, he sings while accompanying himself on his six-string acoustic guitar. To his right sits his longtime accompanist and backup singer blind griot Mansour Seck, who - with his shaved head and orange flowing gown - resembles an elderly monk. Another backup singer, a female, sits to his left; she takes part of the lead in the second song which contains one English word: "San Francisco." The lovely melodies reverberate through the hall. This is the trademark sound that Baaba is known for.

As the third number progresses, remaining members of the band gradually join in, and the bass player, drummer, and two percussionists take the stage and subtly supplement the three acoustic guitars. The two background singers retreat to the rear of the stage and the drummers - who each command a mounted battery of talking drums - pound out rhythms with their sticks. The keyboard player and two dancers further compliment the entourage.

Baaba Maal has not toured in the United States since 2002, and this event is being presented as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. His climb to fame has been slow but steady. Baaba Maal grew up in Podor, a northern Senegalese town near the Mauritanian border. Maal first worked with Asly Fouta, a 70-piece dance band in Dakar, and then attended the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris. Following graduation, he toured West Africa with Mansour Seck who accompanied him on acoustic guitar. Although Maal’s father was a meuzzin (a crier who announces the call to prayers at a mosque), Baaba did not come from the griot caste (the poets and musicians who have produced many of West Africa’s musicians), so he broke new ground. He generally tours with his band Daande Lenol ("The Voice of the People"), and he mostly sings in his Peul/Pulaar dialect of his Haalpulaaren ( meaning "those who speak Pulaar ") ethnic group. The Haalpulaaren (whom the French colonialists call Toucouleurs) descend from the ancient state of Takrur and reside primarily in Senegal’s north where they represent some 10% of the population, in the Senegal River valley, and in neighboring Mali, Mauritania, and Guinea. Unlike other Peul/Pulaar-speakers they are sedentary. The patriarchal and hierarchical Haalpulaaren society is divided into 12 castes which are futher subdivided into three classes.

Some of Baaba’s tunes incorporate "yala rhythms": traditional tunes for the calabash adapted for the guitar which are arranged similar to reggae. Baaba became famous in when a concert, held in Dakar in February 1986, was broadcast live, and he toured Europe in 1987. Baaba’s songs are filled with political and social content.His 1988 cassette "Wango" contained "Demgalam" ("My Language"), a tune concerning minorities and their right to retain their cultural identity, specifically the Toucouleur-speaking black population of Mauritania. The Mauritanian government retaliated by destroying Maal’s cassettes and records.

British producer, Chris Blackwell, of Island Records fame, signed Baaba and launched his career. Peter Gabriel invited him to sing on his album "Passion." Many more albums followed, and Baaba Maal was nominated for a "World Music"Grammy Award February 1996; he placed second. His latest CD, "Missing You" ("Mi Yeewi"), was recorded in 2001.

Back on the stage, Baaba twice expounds on the plight facing Africa’s children but fails to cogently inform the audience as to what they can concretely do to improve the situation. The two dancers come and go several times, and each time they don a different colorful costume. The intensity accelerates as the talking drummers duel and Baaba dances rapid fire. At one point he and another band member each brandish a boat oar. The audience is brought to its feet, and a number, some of whom are Senegalese, gather in front of the stage and jump up on the stage and dance and then get jump off. One of the dancers grips dollar bills, given by audience members, with her teeth. Finally, it all ends in a riotous frenzy. We all wish it could have gone on for some hours more.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Baaba Maal
  • Concert Date: 6/1/2006
  • Venue: Masonic Center
  • City State Country: San Francisco, CA, USA
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