Print this Page

African Legends

Baaba Maal

By Stacy Meyn
Published November 8, 2006

If Senegalese master vocalist Baaba Maal had stayed with the family business (fishing) or stuck to his studies (law) instead of taking up singing and guitar, we would be experiencing a tremendous artistic loss.

Not from the Wolof ethnic group (as are most Senegalese performers), Baaba Maal is one of the Hal Pulaar (Fulami Muslim) minority in northern Senegal. Growing up in Sahel, his mother’s original smart and thought-provoking lyrics planted the musical seed in Maal. Praise singing is traditionally the purview of the griot caste, but that did not deter the teen who joined Asly Fouta, Dakar's 70-piece orchestra. Next came two years of musical theory and composition spent at the Paris Conservatory, then Maal toured West Africa with mentor and fellow vocalist/guitarist Mansour Seck, soaking up the wisdom of village elders. Maal also absorbed the influences of 1960s American performers Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown. Jamaican tours in the 1970s brought Toots Hibbert, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff to Senegal and Maal. He formed his own band, Daande Lenol (“The Voice Of The People”), and in 1988, the album Wango and crackling live shows of melodies inspired by the music of Mali, Guinea and the Niger River put Maal on the European map. The following year, he collaborated with Seck on Djam Leelli (The Adventurers). DJ John Peel described his initial spin as “listening to Muddy Waters for the first time.”

Eager American ears picked out Maal’s distinctive vocals on Peter Gabriel’s Passion Sources in 1990 but it was 1994’s Firin ’In Fouta and its mighty merging of traditional techniques and modern studio wizardry that landed Baaba Maal in CD bins all over the U.S. and contributing to numerous world and ambient compilations. That year, a WOMAD concert for Nelson Mandela placed Maal with Peter Gabriel, Super Diamono and famous countryman Youssou N’Dour. In 1996, Maal was nominated for a World Music Grammy. More electrifying albums came out (Maal simply improves with age), and he was featured in 2001’s Black Hawk Down soundtrack.

Recommended Recordings

Djam Leelli (Yoff Productions)
Firin’ In Fouta (Mango)
Mi Yeewnii (Missing You)(Palm Pictures)