In Africa, the cell phone is king. Landline service doesn’t extend very far beyond the capitals, and so the ring of mobiles is a constant soundtrack to life all across the continent. There’s just one problem—service isn’t exactly reliable. Sometimes it can take up to two or even three days to reach the person you’re calling. That’s what happened trying to contact Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal in his hometown of Podor, close to the Mauritanian border.
"I apologize,” he says. “It’s not easy with the connections,” and he sounds understandably tired. He’s just returned from playing a series of concerts in the country and briefly resting at home, before preparing to return to the international scene after five years away.
Maal has begun work on his as-yet-untitled new album, a collaboration with conscious Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots hopefully due later this year. Their vision, strongly Afrocentric and spiritual yet decidedly funky, meshes well with Maal’s own, especially on the heels of his last album. That was the sublime Missing You (Mi Yeewnii), a live acoustic recording, made in the open air and suffused with the gentle atmosphere of the West African night.
"It was really acoustic and traditional,” he explains, “so for many reasons I felt the next one should be more dance, something more electric, with real musicians who had the sound I was hearing in my head for this album, not programming. I think the Roots is one of these groups because I went to see them perform. They convinced me about their sound, and I asked my label to contact them and see if there was any possibility of doing this record.
"One of the reasons is also that I want this album to be a connection between African urban music and America and the Caribbean urban music. So I’ve been thinking about hip-hop, which is very popular in Senegal and West Africa, to put African and American hip-hop musicians together, working in the same language, which is hip-hop. I think the Roots will be good for that, for the direction of their music, their attitude, the way they work. I believe the next generation of musicians here in Africa will be master hip-hop musicians.”
He’s probably right. Hip-hop has become the global musical language, and in West Africa, particularly Senegal, it resonates with a very deep power among the young, who’ve found it to be a potent and incredibly popular form. They’ve assimilated the music—whose roots, of course, are African—but made it their own. "They are very creative. A lot of young people believe they have the power, they have the talent, to make hip-hop music. And I agree. Also, they arrive to be in the business ready to include everything in Senegalese music, as I do.”
That omnivorousness is the major difference between African hip-hop and its American counterpart. In Senegal, as in the South Bronx, funky beats and complex cross-rhythms power the rhymes, but the African groups also incorporate traditional instruments like the kora, the n’goni (an ancestor of the banjo) and the tama talking drum, all of which are important in Maal’s own music, highlighting the connection he feels with them.
He points out that, “The young generation is very open, so they sing in all the languages so people get the message: Fulani, Wolof, French, everything. The music is modern and universal, but at the same time deeply African, and they believe in that. A lot of young rappers sit down with me. I tell them to be very positive, to talk the same language as Africans. They can use bass and drums, but they have to speak the language of the continent, and they want to keep that. It’s beautiful. They have a chance to speak the universal language of music and hip-hop, which is more universal than African music, and they can keep all the things I respect.”
The other huge difference is the lyrics. Instead of mimicking the American cocktail of braggadocio,