Born in 1953 in Podor, Senegal. Education: Studied at Dakar conservatory; won scholarship to study music at the Conservatoire des Beaux Arts, Paris, France. Addresses: Record company--RykoPalm, 4 Columbus Circle, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10019. Website--Baaba Maal Official Website:

Senegalese singer and songwriter Baaba Maal is a leader of the world music genre, combining traditional music from his homeland with Western popular culture, reggae music, and contemporary instrumentation. Singing in his native Pulaar language, Maal advocates world peace, African self-determination, the family, and individual dignity for men and women. His highly distinctive voice, at once nasal and full-throated, earned him the nickname "the Nightingale," prompting R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe to remark to Jools Holland on the television program Later: "Maal opened his mouth and beautiful pearls and lilies and songbirds came flying out. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen." Since the mid-1990s Maal has recorded with Brian Eno, who produced for the Talking Heads and U2, and John Leckie, who produced for the Stone Roses and Radiohead. Maal also appeared on Peter Gabriel's Passion album, Jah Wobble's Take Me to God, and the Black Hawk Downfilm soundtrack.

Maal was born in 1953 in Podor, a small town with a population of 6,000 located on the Senegal River, which borders Mauritania. His family is of the Tukulor group of the Fula culture. Known as Hal Pulaar in Senegal, they strictly observe Islamic traditions that date from the twelfth century. Chief among their concerns is the preservation of the Pulaar language, as well as their ethnic identity in the midst of Senegal's many indigenous cultures and foreign traders. Maal's family belonged to a caste of laborers traditionally associated with farm work and fishing, rather than the Griot caste of singers and storytellers.

Both of Maal's parents were musical; his father was a farm laborer who was honored with the task of calling his fellow workers to worship at the mosque through songs, and his mother taught him the musical traditions of Senegal. Although his parents wanted him to become a lawyer, Maal pursued his musical interests whenever he could. He initially attended school in St. Louis, the French colonial capital of Senegal, before winning a scholarship to attend school in the Senegalese capital city Dakar. There he joined the 70-member orchestra Asly Fouta, a musical group in which he learned about traditional instruments and music; he also formed his own group, the band Lasli Fouta. His musical education continued as he traveled through West Africa with his griot friend Mansour Seck, a blind guitarist. As Maal explained on his official website: "It's traditional for young musicians to do that. When you arrive in a village you do a gig.... The next day the young people take you to visit the oldest person who knows about the history of the village and the country and about the history of the music."

Maal next studied at the Conservatoire des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, for several years. When he returned to Senegal, he formed the band Daande Lenol, which is translated as "voice of the people" or "voice of the race." Initially concerned with blending Senegalese musical traditions with reggae music, he soon incorporated elements from American soul singers James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, which he blended with the influences of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots Hibbert to create an aggressive form of mbalax, a sometimes spiritual, highly energetic music that marries Cuban and Latin American styles. John Cho defined it in a San Juan Star article included on the Roots World website as "[m]elismatic upper-register vocals of Islamic muezzins with the accompanying Arabic modalities ... [that result] in a fresh harmonic mix." Mbalax features such percussive instruments as sabars (bass drums), djembes (drums with goatskin heads), and tamas, also known as talking drums. Cho noted further: "The rapid-fire dialog between the singer and the tama player is often the climax of a song.... Mbalax also spawned its own high-stepping, high-energy dance called the ventilateur, which raised a ruckus among the pious because of the provocative manner in which the women hiked their boubous and flashed their forbidden legs."

In 1984 Maal and Daande Lenol recorded the acoustic album Djam Leelii in Paris. Featuring the rhythmic guitar playing of Mansour Seck, it was released in Great Britain in 1989 to positive reviews. In 1994 he released Firin' in Fouta, an album noted for its blending of such seemingly disparate musical forms as hip-hop, Celtic and Breton music, Cuban rhythms, and electronica. Firin' in Fouta helped launch the careers of Senegalese rap artists Positive Black Soul, and marked as well the inception of the Afro-Celt Sound System, which included members of Daande Lenol, N'Faly Kouyate and Moussa Sissokho, and Irish musicians Iarla O'Lionaird, Michael McGoldrick, and Ronan Browne.

In 1998 Maal released Nomad Soul, a compilation of individual songs produced by seven different teams of producers, including Brian Eno and Howie B. The album, which was well received critically, also marked the debut of Island Record's creator and reggae impresario Chris Blackwell's new Palm Pictures entertainment company. In 1999 Maal released Baaba Maal: Live at the Royal Festival Hall, followed by Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) in 2001, an album in which he returned to an acoustic format.

Produced by John Leckie, Missing You was recorded in a mobile studio in various locations in West Africa. Because many of the tracks were recorded outside, ambient noise crept into the final mix, including the sounds of a village and cricket chirps. Several of the album's songs reflect Maal's social consciousness, including "Leydi Ma," a song about environmental conservatism, and "Fa Laay Fanaan," a song about the exploitation of the African continent. The album was named to Q magazine's list of the "Best 50 Albums of 2001," in which the magazine's critic wrote: "Not just the year's landmark world music release, but one of the great singer-songwriter LPs of the last five years." The review continued, "Missing You is Baaba Maal at his unaffected best, highlighting a singing voice with all the depth of ancient Delta bluesman Charley Patton." The album further prompted Uncutmagazine critic Nigel Williamson to note: "The results are magically atmospheric, with Maal's intense voice soaring passionately over the relaxed but hypnotic interplay of his all-acoustic group."

Maal's concern for his homeland is further reflected in his role as a United Nations Development Program representative and spokesperson on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. He made two musical appearances on the Red Hot Organization's AIDS fund-raising albums, Red Hot and Rhapsody, a tribute to George Gershwin, and Red Hot and Riot, a tribute to Fela Kuti, the African musician killed by AIDS.

by Bruce Walker

Baaba Maal's Career

Recorded acoustic album, Djam Leelii, 1984; released Firin' in Fouta, 1994; appeared on Black Hawk Downsoundtrack, 2001; album Missing You named to Qmagazine's "Best 50 Albums of 2001," 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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