Baaba Maal is a Senegalese artist that is renowned throughout the world by bringing a taste of Africa wherever he goes. Singing in his native tongue, Fulani, he resonates by taking the position of a griot, or storyteller in African culture, to a musical level. He sat down with mxdwn to talk about his latest project.
Kennedy Oliver: First and foremost, congratulations on your new album. Is it correct that it’s the first album after a seven year hiatus?
Baaba Maal: Thank you, yes.
KO: I wanted to know, was this album created consecutively through the years, or was there pauses in between? What was that process like?
BM: The first thing is that after the latest, the last one, I was not planning to make an album. I said, “maybe it’s enough.” Went to sit down with some of my friends– musicians and we started to write songs just because we had inspiration. It was together at the festival that is happening at my hometown, Blues of the River, and then we traveled and came to New York, finally worked and started to work on some of all those ideas. Those that ended up being the songs, and after four or five songs, we said maybe it’s going to be an album. This is when we decided to make it like an album, but it was just to write songs between friends, music between friends and to share and to travel with it.
KO: Wow, so from a nice little collab session, it just grew into something more. I love that. Now you just mentioned how you recorded it in different locations for this project. I read that it was Senegal, Brooklyn and London. Did those places influence what we hear on this album as well? Certain sounds, textures, all that?
BM: For me it was just to start a journey again with the music and to see where this journey would take us. Talking about different cities, different studios, different environments but also different people to work with. And I wanted to include most of these young people that I was fascinated by what they were doing in Senegal. And then I said, “So we need to have some of the ambience that I used to have in London,” because London is a place that I want to write music and write songs, to go into this studio.
It feeds me because I feel the ambience of all these different people who come from different places in the world and also different elements that are not African, is just for example, Johan Hugo he came from Sweden and he produced music for all these people from around the world, so why not come to London? And then the journey detects me in New York and I find work and I really, really love this place where I came and discovered all the culture that was passing through there. All the painting, all the sculpture, and the fact that we sit down in a small room, we pick up them who can bang on the floor. You have bottles, it makes us look like we were drinking and to make sound just, just like that, you know, you can have it in one place, but when you travel also it fits you, fits your mind. You see the world, because this music is supposed to talk to the world. It’s coming from Africa. It starts in Africa, but it’s talking to the world. It’s talking to everyone who loves music, who listens to music, feels good and are just able to be.
KO: You touched on how it is speaking to Africa, even for Africa. It’s talking to us, the world and showing us Africa and its beautiful culture. And I wanted to know, you combine the traditional African sounds and instruments in this project with the modern electric elements. How do you delicately balance those together? Because one would not think they would go together, but we’re seeing fusion that works.
BM: I understand that sometimes it’s not easy. When you believe that your cultural background comes from the the roots of African music, the traditional instruments, the traditional way of singing and especially the drums and some of these west African guitars that are really connected to the blues and to use electronics for example which is something that is for now in the future you know it’s likely you try to put to a hand on the very far, very long term of how Africa- I was playing music, I was doing music and you want to join it to what people expect. It’s not to be doing music of the future using electronics, all the operations that the electronics bring, so it’s not easy but it has first of all, to be people who don’t struggle to play music together.
You have to have people who appreciate it or I can pick up my guitar, someone takes his cello and we talk about important issues in life and then we go back to playing. What we talked about on the instruments, is we, it’s just a conversation between people when it comes to writing the lyrics, but it’s also a conversation between people when it comes to the instruments that come together. You don’t have to fight, you have to be something that can really make a journey, a journey together.
So it’s not normal or most of the time it’s not easy to find the middle point where you have the essence of African music. In a way that someone who listens to traditional music says, “yes, this is how I know about this instrument.” About this way and also to have something that comes from really, really, really outside of your environment and, but it’s, it’s just like maybe everyone of yours was looking for the other one and now you meet in a good way. You meet in a good way, you understand life, like at the same level and you write the music at the same time.
KO: In a way it’s meeting each other you just find the destination together. It makes me think of the themes of the album. You talked about the ever changing landscape of the world and how fear comes with that. As someone in this industry, in the genre, what’s your take on the evolution of this genre, of this music, African Folklore/Afro beats seeing it grow as it becomes more and more popular?
BM: You know, I think people are appreciating more and more African music and the African culture in general. And I say it’s a very, really good thing because Africa has many things to offer to the world and many examples to show to the world that, if we want to be together, we want to move forward together being in harmony with each other. Everyone looking at everyone else like you are a human being like me and we can build a better future on this planet. Africa has many things to offer in that case because you know, if a country that did pass through all the turbulence in the history of its life still stands up and makes people say Africa is the future. It means that the continent has something to offer, not just in music.
I always say, if we feel that everyone is waiting from this continent to bring something really exceptional that can feed humanity in a good way, it can be music with sports, it can be culture in general, but you can feel that something is weighted from this continent and this is why I think when an artist from this continent just catches the ears, eyes are all focused on Africa.
You know that now you have responsibility to bring things that you did use in your families or your communities, to build a really good relationship between the members of these communities, these families, and also to take all the advantage of what is offered to you, now by the world, just to make a better use for it. I’m talking about the importance of social media in Africa because it keeps people together. If I can explain it we used to be in small villages, we used to after every workday sit down in the middle of the house or in the middle of the village and exchange ideas. This is how we get informed about many things and pass them to the next generation.
Now it’s not like that anymore because people are traveling to go to the big cities. People are traveling to go away like immigrants, but we are all concerned about the communities and social media helps us just to participate, to say our ideas, to send money, to focus on the errands and we are not cut from the reality of our community. That’s the good thing about social media, but at the same time also we have to be really careful because it can destroy the harmony of the families and of the communities because it’s not everything that you put in the social media.
Africa is a very unique continent in the world, so I think this is all the things that we wanted to share with the rest of the world to show that this is the new Africa based on this tradition. She’s a strong tradition but open to the rest of the world and wants to play her role in emancipating people on this planet.
KO: And would you say? Is it more so? The world is finally paying attention to what Africa has been offering for so long. We catching up with you, not you catching up with anyone?
BM: Hey. I understand that. I understand that because, like you say, Africa has offered many. I have one song, which is not in the album, where I say, “Sometimes people think Africa is far away behind. I said no, Africa is not far away behind.” We have been offering everything to our soul, our culture, our knowledge, our people. We went all over the planet and since then Africa didn’t— hasn’t been paid back for offering and I think now it’s the time for Africa to get something from all the things that she did offer to the rest of the planet.
Culture can play that role. Culture is the one that can promote this Africa to the people. Hey, we have many problems like everywhere on the planet, but Africa is a beautiful continent, with a strong culture. Where women can come together and make their leadership in the families, outside of the families, in politics where young people, even when they face poverty, they never drop their hands. They are all trying all their best and this is good energy. It’s really not negative and this is the kind of music that we wanted to share with the planet. If someone listens to it and says, “yes, coming from Africa.” But I’m listening to this song and I feel good, it makes me really tranquil and to say, “Yes, it’s possible this is, this is what being is all about.”
KO: Very True. One of your singles on this album is “Yerimayo Celebration.” What made it stand out to be one of the promotional singles?
BM: I’m a fisherman and Yerimayo is the fisherman. The celebration of the fishermen community and one of these communities that in Africa didn’t lose anything about how they celebrate life, how they celebrate being together, how they celebrate near the river where everyone, wears his nice clothes, makes these jewelries and brings the perks. Everyone is singing, everyone is happy, but also everyone gets the lesson that we have to take care of the river because water is so important and the link between the community that lives near the river-is all connected by the river and to celebrate the spirit of the river, the spirit of the water. This is something that I wanted to celebrate in this song, during my celebration and this is a way where, we are, the community, the fishermen, the people, saying thank you. Wherever you go, you think about this community, you promote the goodwill of this community and it is a community where we will come, if ever someone comes to the Blues of the River, the festival that happens down there, the first day is a big regatta.
If all the boats are decorated, all the women in the jewelry and gloves, singing and performing for the people who come to see the festival, it’s not just another professional musician, but it’s the community with welcoming people and they love to do that, to show that. This is a community where people really, really appreciate life, appreciate friendship, appreciate someone who could come from far away and want to stay some time with us and to share many other things.
KO: And more on this community. The visuals for this particular song in the video, you had a lot of water influence and motifs. I loved how it correlated with the song itself. Like there’s a gentle softness of the rain pattern of the beat. I just wanna know how that all came together? You interwove water through the whole song and thought it was really grand and beautiful.
BM:Thank you, but you know, water is one of these elements that we really needed to talk about. It’s something that can help people to understand, to share water. For the use of water in this part of Africa, but in the world in particular, we’re talking about water because with global warming, we can see that the water is playing another role. Sometimes water destroys places, sometimes water participates to make the sea level rise up.
But water is water. We have a project. But down here we say “even if we don’t see water now, but water never leaves his roads, he will always pass, but where he was passing when he come back, when water comes back.” So we need to appreciate more use of water, the sharing of water and also to know that maybe in the future, something, that when we lose it will make a very bad impact on our life is water, so how to, how to save water, how to organize life around water.
But also to say that the importance of human beings and creatures is all our water is many percent of what is in our body. Everything that we do every day, we cook food, we use the water. Even the religious people, when they do all this cleaning, the oblation to go to pray, they use water. In some religions, after people pass away, they use water to clean them before they are buried. You know, water is in the center of our lives, so it’s important and the people who are the Emi or the fishermen who innovate are certain. Certain places where there is water, they have a role to play just to secure the water.
KO: That’s really, really a beautiful point, to discuss some of your previous work, you were an integral part to the Black Panther soundtracks which is phenomenal. You’re dubbed the voice of Wakanda and I wanna know what it was like working on those iconic films?
BM: Thank you. You know I love, I really, really love the opportunities that I was given to participate in Black Panther Wakanda Forever because I love films. I think music in Africa goes with pictures, you know, goes with movement of people, and this movie and some of the scenes, it’s not just one person or two or three, it’s people coming together like the celebration to chat, you know, it’s how you do it in Africa.
So, to be part of that, come to join me again, of all the wishes I had, to be invited to participate in movies. I did it in Black Hawk Down before, I participated in that sound. I participated in one, which was really, really the one, I say that’s the door to me, total cinema with Ousmane Sembène. He’s a very good film maker. He passed away a long time ago, but he’s one of the pioneers in Africa and one day he came to me and said, “I did this movie, I want your voice, I want you to do the music.”
I said I never, I never did that. I said I’m sure you- the kind of music that you’re doing and give you the feel, look at it and bring me something after that, you know. But after, at the end of the day, I say he was right because some, from the scenes, when I watch them, I can hear my voice just coming- just to punctuate all the actions down there… and many of these elements of African music really can work with cinema, with films, and I think maybe Black Panther Wakanda Forever may be one of the opening doors for many African artists to participate in musical films in the next few years.
KO: I hope so too. I, we needed more, I want more and we need more. Yes you know, throughout your career of music you sang in your native language and I want to know how that enhances all of the messages in your music that you’re trying to convey to listeners about the culture? Even more specific, messages regarding your activism?
BM: Music in Africa has always had a meaning. It’s entertaining people, it’s wanting to have a reference on, on many of their problems. They always go back and listen to music but because, in the music there are a lot of programs that talk to you about some important moment of your life, you have reference, you have the answer to the problems. If you listen carefully, you can get the messages, like say if you are in this situation, this is how you should be here and you will have this result or this result, we have always been educated through music. There was no score at a certain time, but everything that shows our, our responsibility in society, we did get it through, through the music. So I think, to use the music, to bring the new point of view of what is my continent. How positive is what the young people are doing coming together? How positive is the fact that women in the continent of Africa can come together and even for small things, they are focused, they have associations, they have goals and they achieve their goals and they come back to and reinvest whatever they get into new projects.
If it doesn’t stop, we will one day, we will say one day that “yes, we achieved something for the continent, but we will achieve something too, for ourselves in this life.” So I think music is something that we can use to promote all of that, it’s a big movement on the continent. It’s a movement from the young people, from women, in politics, in economy, in culture and the force should be driven by music, should be punctuated by the music.
KO: And because of that, how would you say you cope or other artists can with, maybe a fear of speaking out on certain topics like politics, culture and other things? While trying to balance entertaining people in music, some would say when discussing subject matter like this in music, they like to hide the vegetables in the meal for kids. Is that the right approach with this as well? How do people strike that balance?
BM: I think everyone who plays music, you want it or you don’t want it, you are playing a role, a political role. That’s because of the power of music and I’m on the Continent. I think musicians should be more engaged. Not going to be politicians or trying to run to be a minister or a president, but to bring out your voice since you get the chance to be listened to by many, many people. Whatever you write, like a song, simple love songs have a political meaning because it brings peace and peace is the first part of the stand to come to sustainable living, really, honest living on this planet. And I really want everyone to play music, sing songs, write songs, just understand that.
The whole planet is waiting for the part, this part of our legacy is just to come to help human beings to find solutions. There are a lot of conflicts, a lot of wars. You never hear people who say I’m going to write you a song to make people fight, to get to each other, they are always saying I’m writing a song because I want people to get in peace, to be in love, to be in harmony. You know when you write a song, it is just something that you want to share with people and musicians, artists in general. I will say we are, who, see the world like it should be. We don’t see the world like it is. We look at the world, we look at life right now, and we look at it and want to see how it should be, like a place where people can live in harmony, can be tolerant between everyone and can accept others completely.
Trying to understand what’s the culture behind that person that you see and maybe we will see at the end of it that we are all the same, we are not different, we are all the same, you know- and this is what music we want to do. This is the kind of politics that music brings to people.
KO: Well, that was well said— perfectly said. I wanna thank you for taking the time to sit down with mxdwn down and myself. This has been wonderful.
BM: Thank you very much.