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World Music CD Reviews Africa

BAABA MAAL

By NED HAMMAD
Published May 2, 2006

The Best Of The Early Years
Wrass

As a sampler of Maal’s first several solo albums, Early Years might lead newcomers to believe that the Senegalese vocalist and kora virtuoso suffers from severe split-personality disorder. On one hand, there are attempts to capture the natural beauty of Maal’s folk-leaning efforts, such as “Daande Lenöl” (from 1992’s Lam Toro), which quietly smolders thanks to a constant, repeating kora figure. The singer’s chalky voice trades the spotlight with tasteful electric guitar and flute licks before drums and bass arrive to elevate with a bedrock layer of deep funk. Other times (as on the title track from ’97’s Taara) a dated arrangement and production—making the cut sound a good 10 years older than it is—impose an anonymous pop sheen robbing the music of personality. Still, there’s something likable in most every track, be it the supple boogie-rock groove of “Hamady Boiro” or the baroque, multi-layered ornamentation and herky-jerky rhythms of “Wango Arti (Tribal Dance Comeback).”