Baaba Maal, The Tabernacle, London

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The Independent Culture

When Baaba Maal went off to university, he was reluctant to tell his father that he wanted to be a musician, so he told him he would be teaching music. His father, a Senegalese fisherman, was a strict adherent of the local tradition that unless one was a scion of a musician family, it was forbidden to perform as a singer.

Baaba's deception proved difficult to sustain: when he first sang on the radio, he insisted that his name not be mentioned; but the game was finally up when he and his father found themselves alone in a room with the radio, and Baaba's voice burst forth from the speaker, singing "Tara". His father listened in silence, then pointed at the radio and said, "You!" But after reflection, he gave his blessing, provided his son continued to sing such elevating songs, and wasn't out to chase fame and women.

This illuminating story was unearthed during the conversation with playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, which preceded Baaba's performance at the Tabernacle. By way of illustration, Baaba delivers a brief excerpt of "Tara" for us, his voice both powerful and gentle. As he sings, it's possible to see the thin muscles in his forehead shifting with each syllable, his whole face involved in the phrasing and shaping of notes – a physical metaphor for the vitality and importance of words and singing in the oral tradition in which he was reared.

In the second part of the show, we get abundant confirmation of his gifts, as his strident, sonorous tones ring out over his calm fingerstyle guitar figures and the bewitching percussive beds created by Jim Palmer and Mamadou Sarr, the latter's pulsing calabash (a large gourd) and djembe (a sort of conga) peppering Palmer's subtle shaker rhythms and shivers of gong. On the opening "Tindo", the three build up languid waves of sound, the ghostly hum of Palmer's singing bowls contrasting with the piercing jabs of Baaba's voice.

"Djam Leelii" follows, its opening blues motif suggesting an affinity with the open-ended boogies of Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker; and later on, in "Hamady Boiro (Three Little Birds)", the rolling cyclical guitar figure and shuffling shaker groove brings to mind Paul Simon's "Under African Skies", until the singer ushers Mamadou Sarr to the front of the stage to lead the audience in a feverish clap-along finale, before the encore of "Daande Lenol" concludes in a similar fervour.

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