Interview: Baaba Maal on his ‘Traveller’ tour (January 2016)

“Travelling is the strongest lesson of life,” announces Baaba Maal, one of West Africa’s most renowned musical spokesmen. The Senegalese superstar has recorded seventeen albums to date. The most recent, aptly named ‘The Traveller’, has just been released. We were lucky to be granted an interview with the singer just before his inspiring concert at the Colston Hall, Bristol.

Baaba Maal is a Fulani, of the nomadic tribe that stretches across west Africa and beyond. He grew up amongst fishermen on the banks of the Senegal river in the country’s northernmost town, Podor.  He first ventured out into the world as a young man with his best friend, the blind griot Mansour Seck, so the obvious place to begin our interview was with this first inquisitive step.

Yes – I’ve been travelling all my life. I’m a professional traveller! Mansour and I just left. It was at a time when young people of my generation would just leave home and go on an adventure, try to discover the world, make some friends and learn about life – and then come back home with this new knowledge. It was an exciting time, but it was also frightening if you look back on it because when you’re young you face a lot of dangers. But you don’t know it because your curiosity is more intense than any fear of anything. We would just go and enjoy everything! Even if sometimes you hurt yourself, it’s a part of the adventure, and you can learn from that.

Would you still be able to go on that sort of adventure now that you’re so well known?

Oh no! I would like to be able to do it now in the same way that I did it before. Maybe I will do it, but not in the same place. It would have to be a place where I am less known – maybe Asia or South America – where people might know me, but not in the same way that Africans do.

So tell us about this latest album. It’s been six years since your last one. Has it been a long process?

The process of making the album ‘The Traveller’ started in 2012 during the Olympics. We started to make plans and this is how we did the recording of the two last tracks on the album, ‘Peace’ and ‘War’.

These two dramatic tracks feature the British poet/spoken word artist Lemn Sissay and were produced by John Leckie. The rest of the album fell into place when you met Swedish born London-based producer Johan Hugo Karlberg. How did you meet Johan?

I met him when the record company (Palm) asked him to do a remix of one of my tracks – and he was very funny! He said, “if I do that, I want Baaba Maal to come and sing on one of my songs”. It was a kind of exchange. So I just did it, and that was the first contact. And then we met again in the project Africa Express on a train, and we started listening to each others songs. We started talking about music. Everyone on this train was picking the one [person] he wanted to work with, to jump on the stage with. So this is how we started making plans. I found out more about him when I went to his studio. He made me listen to some of his stuff, what he was doing with a singer from Malawi called Esau Mwamwaya [in the band The Very Best]. So I thought, “that’s OK. He’s from Sweden, he lives in London, he works with people from Africa, and that means his heart is open” – and he jumped into the project and he came to Dakar to write some new songs.

We reminded Baaba Maal of a video interview he once made in which he said he likes working with producers who understand the ‘heat’ in an African voice. We asked Baaba if he felt this had been achieved by Johan on this latest album.

Yes. What I like about Johan is he has a really open mind. At the same time he is someone who is very respectful to artists. It wasn’t just me, but even the artists  that I brought in to the studio in my house in Senegal to work on the album –  the people who played percussion, for example.  You have to really understand their personality, and some producers they just put the microphone and record it like that. But you have to really understand the personality of the musicians first, then the instruments, and then try to know what role they play in African music. 

You know, instruments like sabar, the Senegalese drums? It’s not something that was supposed to be played in a room! It would be played outside, and that is where he recorded them – outside. In fact, you need to understand the different sound you get when the drums are one metre, two metres or ten metres  from you. This is because when we play in Senegal in the middle of two or three-hundred people we are looking for a certain sound to entertain these people. So Johan understands because he respects the musicians and tries to understand the culture behind the instrument, and get that sound into the recording.  This is what we have on the recording, for example, of ‘Lampenda’ [track 5 on ‘The Traveller’] – and when you play on stage we have that sound already.

The idea of recording outside sounds interesting! Do you have lots of people coming to check out what you’re doing?

Oh yeah – they come! They don’t disturb us because they are part of the music. They are a part of what will inspire the musicians to play. They get their chairs, sit down and listen. They know it’s for a recording for an album, but we’re entertaining people at the same time – and they know they will inspire the musicians. For example, if the people that play the talking drum or the Senegalese percussion see that these people are not just coming because of the sound, but to be entertained, then it makes them entertain more, because it excites them to play to people.

So even though the recording is for an album, it has a real live feel because of the audience that was present at the recording. That wouldn’t happen often here in the UK! The part that music plays in West African culture seems very important compared with it’s place in European culture. Tell us a bit about your experiences of learning about music there. First of all, how did people in Dakar perceive you when you first went to study music in the Senegalese capital?

I was very new – someone who didn’t speak the main language; someone who was bringing something totally different from what people were listening to in Dakar. It was exciting to hear something new, but at the same time the music in Dakar was very ‘certain’. People had their place, so there was not much space for someone else there – you had to make your own place.

So did you invent your own style?

No. The style just comes from my cultural background. I believe that it is strong. I respect there are other styles, but at the same time I was very proud and very comfortable in my style.  I like it, and also when I go back home it’s the one that people know. This is what the people use to express themselves – everyone down there is an artist, and that’s our culture – you don’t move away from it. I do believe that each culture has a connection with lots of other cultures – internationally speaking – and even in Senegal there are some other tribes or communities where you can see a connection.

After you finished your studies you went to Paris to continue your musical education. Did you learn about western classical music there?

No, I learned about western classical music in Senegal. In the conservatory down there it was just western classical music because people wanted that, just like geography or history. The history of the world that we were learning in high school in Senegal was not the history of Africans. It was the history of Napoleon, the history of France, it was western history, so music was the same. We were learning about Mozart, Beethoven and Handel, about counterpoint and fugues. 

That is a shame. Everyone should learn their own history from all perspectives. Were there any benefits to that knowledge?

Yes, it did open our minds, because during the course of the day we would be learning [western classical music], then at night we would be playing our national music, and we’d say “what’s the difference?”. And then we knew that even in African music we have ‘classical’ music – it just hasn’t been written down. There, people can express themselves, but it’s classical music all the same, just like some of the western classical music. And you start to think “yes, we have our own music”. Then you can build your determination to promote that music because you are able to give it more respect.

So what did you learn in Paris?

When I went to Paris it was more about seeing the scene, going to watch people play. I went mostly to see shows, to see jazz musicians play. I saw Mutubaruka [the Rastafari dub poet and musician], who comes from Jamaica and Linton Kwesi Johnson. I thought “Wow! How do they do that? How do they put that on the stage in a modern way?”. Being in Paris was all about learning about entertainment.

Coming back to the present day and your new album ‘The Traveller’, do you have a message that is as relevant to your fans in Senegal and west Africa as it is to the rest of the world?

‘The Traveller’ is really for everyone, especially for Africa, where life is always about travelling. I come from a nomadic tribe, the Fulanis, and we have travelled all over Africa, especially the Sahel region, from Sudan to Senegal. Fulani people have been travelling for centuries. So, coming back to our conversation, travelling is the biggest and the strongest lesson in life. There is a proverb that says “a young person who travels a lot in his early years has the knowledge of someone who has lived a life of seventy years”. This is because through seeing many things and the differences between them he has the ability to get a better result in life, just as an old man who has lived for seventy years has developed that maturity. That’s one of the basic lessons of being a nomad.

Every part of life is travelling. Say you watch a movie – you travel into the mind of the director. You see different characters and learn the history and try to understand. If you get a chance to actually go to the place [featured in the film] then it is different. But it’s all travelling! You listen to the voice of the storyteller and travel into the past. Travel makes your mind! Coming through life is a journey. You get born and are travelling right from the start – you’re on an adventure. You never know what you’re going to get, who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to learn. It’s just a journey into life, and I think that’s why I named this album ‘Traveller’.

And with those wise words Baaba Maal stepped out on the next stage of his remarkable musical journey, and our interview was over.

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