Baaba Maal, Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 18 June 2009
There's a storm blowing through south London. Inside, all looks calm, as Baaba Maal sits in a gold suit reminiscent of Elvis, and quietly sings. But just like Elvis in his '68 Comeback Special, seeing Maal seated suggests the tense, coiled power of what will happen when he stands. Senegal's greatest star is a precisely dramatic, reliably exhilarating performer, and has a fine new album, Television, to refresh his sound. As befits a gig for Ornette Coleman's Meltdown festival, there are guests too, including a fresh-voiced VV Brown who looks momentarily floored by having to follow Maal's piercing roar. A man who believes music transforms societies, Maal throws his whole body into getting under our skins.
"Television" is the key track, opening up Maal's sound with a mighty pop tune. Argentinian keyboardist Didi Gutman adds electronic rock washes to a tableau in which everyone is essentially on rhythm, whether with guitars or hands. You'd have to be dead, or an English arts centre crowd, not to dance. This audience nervously cling to their seats till Maal orders us to our feet for the aptly named "Percussion Storm". You can hear James Brown in the bass-line and brass of a band by now swollen to 15, and Maal too won't rest till we're all feeling good. He dances on one leg, springs in mid-air, spins on his bottom and one palm, then uses both hands to invite us in.
He pauses to make social points. But his ideals are in-built with a band which includes Gutman, the veteran English guitarist Barry Reynolds, and, during the thrilling "Song for Women", rapper Kano, introduced as the "embassy for London". "Sarala" quotes South African township brass and "African Woman" Afro-Cuban rhythms. "International" finds Maal incanting every African nation, asking for "peace and love". Then he rasps, "Bang bang bang", blowing war away, his hands waving so it's clear this music means to cast a spell. The crowd's own noise is bouncing off the walls by now. Around the two-hour mark, the Royal Festival Hall is brought as close as it can be to the loosened mind-state of a late-night Dakar club, or maybe one in 1970s Harlem or Gaelic Dublin, both of which find their spot in this groove. Maal has worked music's magic with physical effort and faith, tipping this little bit of the world his way.
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