Acclaimed Senegalse singer/songwriter and guitarist Baaba Maal is a member of the semi-nomadic Fulani people. He first left his home in Podor, Senegal to perform music hundreds of miles away as a teenager — and he has been a wanderer ever since. “It’s part of my culture,” Maal says. “The songs travel from village to village, from country to country. It’s something natural to my tribe and this part of Africa.”
Since then, Maal has followed his music, as it traveled around the world, starting from his young travels around West Africa, performing with mentor Mansour Seck, to the Paris conservatory, where he studied music theory and then eventually across the rest of the globe, while collaborating with an eclectic array of acclaimed, contemporary artists including John Leckie, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, and Mumford & Sons. Maal has worked on the soundtracks for The Last Temptation of Christ and Black Hawk Down. He has also worked with soundtrack composer Ludwig Goransson to create the soundscapes for both Black Panther films, essentially making him the voice of Wakanda.
Throughout his career, the acclaimed Senegalese artist has spread the word of an idealistic, energetic Africa — to the entire world. “I could bring my Africa to this other, abstract Africa, and both places collided together beautifully,” he says of Black Panther, “I brought this mythical Africa back to Podor, extending my reality, my hometown, and my music. I didn’t know whether I would make another album after The Traveller, but I did know my thinking about music was still changing. And once more something stirred inside me at home in Podor. I found myself once again. It was time for a new album.”
Maal’s forthcoming album Being is slated for a March 31, 2023 release through Marathon Artists. The album reportedly is the latest stage in the development of a highly distinctive, ecstatically melodic sound that meshes traditional African instruments and rhythms with modern, electronic production, The album is a set of confrontational and contemplative stories in which Maal mixes evocative, personal local concerns with grand universal themes to produce a unique form of deep, immersive soul music, taking the listener to new places via his birthplace of Podor, Senegal, where his music always begins — and his travels always end. “However far I travel, whatever direction, I will always return home,” the acclaimed Senegalese artist says. “It is the nomadic nature. To wander, but to return home, eventually. Home is where you start from, where you begin to learn what really matters, and home is where you finish. Podor is the perfect place for me when I need some time to think, to see my music with a fresh eye, to surprise it, snare it, catch it unawares as if coming across it for the first time.”
The album is also deeply informed by experiences Maal had before, during and after the pandemic. The album is about being African, being a songwriter, being a romantic, being realistic, being wary, being online, being at the mercy of the elements, being caught between two worlds, being on your way somewhere — and ultimately about his being from Podor while being connected to a constantly turbulent and shifting world through his art. “Each song of this album has its own personality. A song is like a person. It has a life, name, a character, and it has a position in life,” Maal says in press notes. “I think that’s what makes this album so powerful – it is totally about now and where I am now, the dreams I have of the past and the future.”
The album’s material also reflects Maal’s need to continually move forward with his work. Much like the acclaimed Senegalese artist’s previously released work, there wasn’t a set deadline: Songs were finished when they ere finished, emerging out of a combination of both fast and slow work. There were intense improvisational studio sessions in Brooklyn, Podor, and London, where things moved quickly and songs took place over a few days. After energetic bursts of activity, both artist and producer took time to process their work, and songs would reveal themselves over many months. Some would be recorded by the ocean, in the ocean air, with the sound of crickets, dogs, donkeys, birds, traffic, rain and people being captured nearby.
Last year, I wrote about album opening track “Yerimayo Celebration,” a joyous and percussive stomp centered around layers of thunderous percussion, African traditional instrumentation and enormous, ebullient hooks. The song which features contributions from Cheikh Ndoye (bass ngoni) and Momadou Sarr (percussion) is celeebration of music — and of music’s power to open the mind and heart in deeply troubled times, and of its power in fighting cynicism and chaos.
Beings latest single, “Freak Out” feat. The Very Best is a mesmerizing and woozy alchemy of traditional African folk instrumentation and modern production through the form of skittering, tweeter and woofer rattling beats and percussion that effortlessly bridges the ancient and the modern — while being boldly and defiantly African. Lyrically, the song explores the complex dynamic of social media and its effects on both African and the wider world.
“It became a song about being careful what you put on the internet,” says Baaba Maal, “It might seem funny or popular when you do it, but it might have consequences and you will have to live with those all your life.
“There are things you should keep to yourself. Mystery is important in life; you don’t need to shine a light on every little thing you do. You don’t have to give away your soul for the sake of a little bit of attention.
“The internet should be used to make humanity feel good about themselves. It is so powerful, it can be dangerous and sometimes it just seems the internet has just caused a constant freak out.”
The accompanying video is a gorgeous and sensitive slice of the complexity of African life that’s life-affirming and necessary as it captures a mix of ancient traditions and modernity. But along with that, there’s a reminder of the fact that people are generally the same.