Baaba Maal Biography

12 November 1953, Podor, Senegal. Vocalist and guitarist Maal had humble origins, growing up in the sparsely populated town of Podor, where his father worked in the fields, but also had the honour of calling worshippers to the mosque using song. The influence of Islam would remain central to his son’s activities too, both father and son being members of the Fulani community, which originally brought the Muslim religion to the area. His mother was also a musician, writing her own songs, though the influence of imported western sounds (via transistor radio) such as Otis Redding and James Brown, then reggae ambassador Jimmy Cliff, would also have a profound influence. After winning a scholarship to the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, he travelled widely throughout Senegal and neighbouring Mali and Mauritania, studying the traditional music of the area. ‘It’s very important for young modern musicians in Africa to do a lot of research. To know what is African music. You cannot say you are doing African music if you don’t know exactly where this music comes from.’ He spent a further two years of academic study at the Paris Conservatoire, learning European theory and composition, before returning to Dakar in the early 80s to form Le Daande Lenol (‘the voice of the race’). This group was formed with his long-standing friend, musical accomplice, and family ‘griot’, Mansour Seck.

In 1982 Maal released the first of seven cassette-only albums which would, by mid-decade, establish him as a potential rival to Youssou N’Dour, the reigning king of Senegalese youth music. Disc jockey John Peel described Djam Leelii, as like ‘listening to Muddy Waters for the first time.’ The music employed the Pekan songs of Northern fishermen, Gumbala chants of ancient warriors and Dilere weaving tunes. Most pervasively, the musical framework was based on the Yela songs of indigenous women pounding grain - taught to him by his mother. In 1985, he signed to the Paris-based label Syllart, releasing the superb albums: Wango and Taara.

In 1991 Maal moved to London-based Island Records subsidiary, Mango, ensuring his continued growth as an international artist. His debut for Mango, Baayo, featured a typically acoustic line-up, with Maal and Seck joined by Sayan Sissokho (guitar), Malick Sow (xalam) and Yakhoba Sissokho (kora). The emphasis here was on the experiences of his childhood, a delightful portrait of West African life, which justified the award of several critical accolades. Lam Toro, dedicated to his mother, provided a more modern Senegalese sound, with synthesizers and programmed percussion. It was later released in remixed form. Firin’ In Fouta was well received by the critics and introduced freeform jazz and reggae beats in an impressive marriage of the new and the old. It was partially based on a return journey to Podor when Maal made recordings of the traditional singers and musicians he had heard in his youth, mixing these into the final recording in Dakar. Nomad Soul featured an array of guest vocalists (Sinéad O’Connor, Luciano) and producers (Eno, Howie B. ), but Maal’s unique talent still shone through. He returned to his acoustic roots on Missing You (Mi Yeewnii), focusing on the rich musical heritage of West Africa.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.