Baaba Maal - Modern Day Griot
Baaba Maal is on tour in the U.S. till June - catch up with him here.
I caught up with internationally acclaimed musician and singer Baaba Maal after the high energy Toronto show that kicked off his North American tour on April 6. A musical superstar in his native Senegal, he struck international fame about twenty years ago.
Baaba is a Fulani and sings mainly in his native Pulaar, with the odd piece in French. Over the decades, he's been something of a stylistic chameleon, fusing various musical influences from other cultures with West African traditions, notably on Television, his 2009 CD collaboration with NYC based electronica group Brazilian Girls.
The mantle of star isn't one he wears lightly, however. Baaba is a griot, part of a West African tradition of musicians/singers/storytellers that goes back centuries to the days of the Mandé Empire. Interestingly, Baaba was not born into the griot caste, as is the tradition.
He was actually born to a fisherman's family, but was educated in music from an early age by close friend Mansour Seck, a blind griot who still sings the backing vocals in his band today. To Baaba a griot is someone with a role and a responsibility, and in respect to African culture, a vital one that inevitably adds politics into the mix.
"I think it's a subject we should (take on) as African musicians," he says. "Western music is just about business." He notes that griots were far more than entertainers. "Centuries ago, this was the role of the griots, not only to tell stories, but to advise the leaders." Leaders used their songs to mobilize support for projects or ideas - much the way North Americans use media.
Baaba talks about the significant factors that affect access to information in much of Africa, including the disruptions of war, language differences, and lack of education. "But they are very close to their culture," he notes - making music a natural bridge to the otherwise unreachable.
He sprinkles his socially conscious message between the music in his concerts, about things like equality and an increased role in society for Africa's women, (this to the crowd's delight at the Toronto show.) "We need these people for the future of the African continent," he insists.
Despite his wide recognition in Senegal and an international profile, Baaba lives in a small community without the trappings of glamour or stardom. "When I'm done this tour, I go home to my small town in Senegal." There he becomes a conduit to the larger world. "People want to know my opinion because I travel."
Musicians, as he points out, have a kind of authority with people long ago forfeited by the political class. "People will judge you by your words," he says. "We prefer to listen to the artists," he laughs. Shady politicians - it's an element that cuts across all the world's cultures.
He sees the commitment to a socially conscious message as lifelong. "I don't see any way to run away from that." It doesn't extend to any political aspirations beyond that, however. "I'm an artist," he says. "If something is wrong, I will make a song," he pauses, "and if it's something good, I will make a song about that too."