Baaba Maal: 'Say what you believe is true'

When Baaba Maal performs, you see something extraordinary, almost supernatural – the will and power to change the world

Baaba Maal is back in Britain next week. If he isn't yet as familiar a name here as his fellow Senegalese Youssou N'Dour, this is because of a sea-change he's helped to inspire. N'Dour cemented his Western reputation with the English-language Neneh Cherry duet "Seven Seconds", and guest spots with Sting and Paul Simon. Maal, by contrast, has brought Western music to himself. He reacted to Live 8's 2005 mega-gig to supposedly clear Africa's debts and "end" poverty with cool, clear disgust. Where, he asked, were the Africans on the bill, while Pink Floyd and a stumbling Pete Doherty were in Hyde Park trying to save them?

The response was Africa Express, a loose collective set up with Damon Albarn and others, since joined by stars including Franz Ferdinand, Massive Attack and Amadou & Mariam. This project sees Western musicians going to Africa to peel open their musical senses, and vice versa. In his quiet, unfussy way, Baaba Maal is trying to reverse centuries-old colonial mind-sets; to get Africa to meet the West as an equal. As becomes obvious when we meet in London, Maal is a man in a hurry to change the world.

It seems a heavy load. The 55-year-old is small-boned and delicate, at odds with his royally robed, prowling stage presence. Sipping tea, he talks in quick English (his third language, at least), in a tumbling rhythm mixing excitement and nerves. Switching off the mobile on which acquaintances call him from Dakar wherever he is on the globe, wanting this favour or that, he holds forth with the commitment of a cultural revolutionary. Maal is certain that his and Africa's day will come.

Maal is in Britain to headline the latest African Soul Rebels tour, this time with Zimbabwe veteran Oliver Mtukudzi and President Obama's favourite Chicago Kenyans, Extra Golden. Uniting West, East and South Africa, it's the sort of mind-expanding package Maal favours. His own band are schooled in rock, hip-hop and synths, as they showed on records such as Nomad Soul (1998). But for this tour, like the one captured on last year's On the Road live album, Maal will play acoustically. For him, that sound feels like coming home.

"When we were young, me and my friend [and life-long musical collaborator] Mansour Seck would sit at night by the river and sing and play about daily life; wanting to travel, or go to school, or marry that girl when the caste system said we couldn't. We'd do it softly, melodically. Even now, in the middle of the show I just pick up my guitar. It's true music, with no pretension."

Maal is just back from a very different tour. As he has done for 15 years now, he took his band, Dande Lenol [The People] to play fundraising gigs for remote villages in Senegal for two months. It is a continuation of the two-year exploration he and Seck made of the region as young men, learning the meaning of classical African music. They then found this music, so close to home, at the root of the James Brown and Wilson Pickett records they loved. These discoveries, being made in different ways by contemporaries such as N'Dour in the clubs of 1970s Dakar, were Maal's musical foundation. Not being of the griot caste, he shouldn't have been playing at all. Going on to study music in Dakar and Paris, he helped to kick down that wall. Maal has stayed a rooted rebel. It suits the hybrid culture he grew up in, with former nomads in the north Senegal river town of Podor, where sub-Saharan and Saharan Africa cross.

When Maal returned to that world this year, a world star, feasts were prepared and generators rigged for concerts. Ignoring commercial tours' hit-and-run tactics, Maal's band lived with their listeners. Waking in the afternoon after playing until everyone dropped, they'd talk with associations for women, young people or village development. "Because they know that we are famous and travel the world, they want to know what we think about things in their lives."

It sounds a grand equivalent to The Clash's clumsy attempts to break down barriers with fans by inviting them backstage for beer and sandwiches. Except, for Maal, those barriers were never visible. "When you're an African musician, you know this music doesn't belong to you, it belongs to the people, because you're using their instruments, which were built a long time ago. The rhythms belong to dancers in everyday ceremonies. All our music comes from that."

This African music is entwined in global concerns. Mtukudzi spoke out when Zimbabwe was Ian Smith's racist Rhodesia, and he hasn't stopped for Mugabe. I ask Maal if his friend is in exile now. "I don't know. Yes, what's happening in Zimbabwe is bad..." he says, drifting off. But for Maal, there is always a bigger picture. Congo, Somalia, Mali, all those places where there's been little white suffering to excite British viewers, need his attention, too. Our obsession with one ex-colony seems, you sense, provincial.

Extra Golden are a splicing of Kenya's Orchestra Extra Solar African with the Chicago funk-rock band Golden. Visa problems for the Kenyans coming to Chicago were smoothed by local fan Barack Obama. Surely having a man with a Kenyan father trying to run the world makes Africans proud? "Yes, symbolically it's a very good thing," he says. "But we can't look to America to save us. African societies have to do that themselves."

Turning to the West's tottering economic system, Maal typically sees only potential. "I don't want to say it's a good thing," he says, but he can't contain his thrill at what might follow: a moral revolution, with ancient roots. "In Africa, for all our problems, people still have traditional systems in place that could work better. Africans are often already used to being very poor, but families and communities support each other. In such a situation, you have to behave morally."

Maal's recorded music has been on hold since his last studio album, Missing You (Mi Yeewnii), eight years ago. He's hardly noticed. "It matters to the record company," he laughs. "But I haven't stopped working. I'm always touring in Africa, organising my own festivals, promoting the UN Development Programme. For me, it's just performing, it's all the same. But a new album is finished; you'll hear it in a month or two. It's different to Missing You, which was traditional African music and voices. This one is much more surprising. I don't want to talk about it, so it stays that way."

Hours after we speak, Maal unexpectedly takes the stage with the great Nigerian drummer Tony Allen in east London. His piercing eyes and tensed body add to a voice that gently cajoles, then explodes. Maal's reputation is built on such scenes. It's impossible to imagine a half-hearted show.

His last big UK show, closing Womad's 25th anniversary festival in 2007, was almost the exception. Driving overnight from Belgium, sick with a cold, he arrived to find the site a quagmire. "Even I was thinking, 'This isn't a good day for me,'" he recalls. But, as I watched that day, that doubt was invisible. Maal looked like a dreadlocked vicar in white robes. Impassive as a statue at first, he ended as an irresistible whirling dervish amid the polyrhythmic talking-drummers and female dancers contorting in mid-air. The climax was the sort of thing he'll do next week: playing alone on acoustic guitar, singing quietly, until his voice casually flung huge notes into the night. His blind compadre Mansour Seck soon joined in. Then, oars and pestles were brought on for the beats working African women have always pounded.

Maal recalls the transformation as supernatural. The bedraggled, miserable man who walked towards the stage became someone else. "Suddenly I jumped on the stage, and everything was gone! I was standing up, enjoying the fire! You really believe that you are built to do things in moments like that."

Maal has spent his life trying to change African societies, and their place in the world, with a mixture of faith and graft. This is what he thinks music is for. "If you don't believe in that power to make a change, you shouldn't do it. Whenever I go on stage, I believe that it's slow – but something can be done. My father was a muezzin, and told me that spirituality has to be the base of your motivation. And because people listening to you is a big responsibility, you don't have to lie; just say what you believe is true."

When Baaba Maal takes the stage next week, the happily driven man drinking tea with me will take on a more electrifying guise. But his purpose is the same: "After listening to and being touched by music, you will love a community, a country, a culture. Then, you'll wonder what you can do for them."



The African Soul Rebels tour begins at the Sage, Gateshead on 3 March (www. musicbeyondmainstream.co.uk)

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