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Baaba Maal Celebrates Mother Africa

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It's been three years since Senegalese singer Baaba Maal released a new record (Missing You, Palm Pictures 2001), but in that time he's lost none of his spark. If anything, Maal seems to acquire intensity over time. He appeared with his touring septet on March 26 at the Somerville Theater (near Boston), starting quiet and ending up raucous as hell.

Such was Baaba Maal's stated intention: to play on stage like he would in his home town. Somerville Theater is normally a bit difficult, both with respect to audience comfort and sound quality, so it was a rather big leap in practice—but in spirit a total victory. Barou Sall started out all alone on the stage playing the hoddu, a small, skinny lute-like instrument which dates back to at least the beginning of West Africa's most recent (eight centuries old) unifying Empire of Mali.

The instrument, otherwise known as the n'goni or African guitar, lends itself poorly to amplification, partly because there's no logical place to put a pickup. But Sall paid no mind, simply working his way up and down pentatonic harmonies, with occasional small intervals and regular trills tossed in. The result of the brief solo was a sense of peace mixed with expectation among the audience.

But the peace was sure to fade as the other six players made their way onto stage. Baaba Maal, who is far shorter than the average above-average Senegalese man, sat on a stool in expansive flowing ceremonial robes. As is his custom, he started out alone with his guitar (the band prefers Ovation guitars, it seems) and simply sang and played. Maal's voice is incredibly huge, though that crude a word is hardly adequate to describe it. He uses the upper end of his range in coordination with an incredible loudness to emphasize certain words and phrases. In this setting, amplified as hell, with piles of massive speakers on stage, the volume approached (but did not quite hit) deafening levels. That's most certainly not a mistake, at least in the case of this involving singer.

Little by little his companions joined in, with a endpoint of four guitarists and three drummers total. Maal's dominant voice gradually yielded to more guitar work (launched by Djiby Sall and sustained by his childhood friend and teacher Mansour Seck), but at most times he remained in the lead position. Despite a certain sense of liberty, the first part of the performance felt more organized, highlighted by a version of "Yoolelle Maman" ten or fiftten minutes in. The title, which comes from the Fulani language of Northern Senegal (otherwise known as Pulaar by the people who speak it), means "A tribute to parents" and extends to include a joyful emphasis and references to Mother Africa. By the time this tune came through, the mood was set and it was just a matter of soaking up the spirit.

Baaba Maal makes a point of being inclusive with his music, his lyrics, and his performances. That means allowing guests on stage—including an unnamed talking drum player who seemed at home on the instrument and three or four dancers who obviously knew how to do the real thing. As time went on, the drums (and the talking drum) took on bigger and bigger roles and the show became all about dance. A majority of audience members were clapping or singing, and a sizeable population were shaking it in front of the stage. Sure enough, the band responded in typical playful Senegalese fashion: the talking drum player did a series of weird pelvic dances; a band member later stood on his head and clapped his feet for an impressive duration.

After a generous amount of time the audience left the stage and the house lights went up. The audience wasn't content to leave just yet, so they made a whole lot of noise and beckoned the group back on stage. More dancing, more wildness, more crazy drumming, more revelry, and then it was over. Some of the most memorable images were blind guitarist Mansour Seck dancing hypnotically with the music, the two rear drummers playing as black silhouetted shadows; and Baaba Maal carrying on extended (serious and not-so-serious) musical conversations one-on-one with his band members.

I guess you have to appreciate intensity and be unafraid to enter a kind of joyful trance, but very few people failed to enjoy the performance. Its message of social consciousness was impossible to ignore. Barring some problems with sound quality (the balance being way too bright and stage hands frequently moving about on stage), it was a near-perfect show. Short of birds and night noises, it was a solid rejuvenation of Missing You (Mi Yeewnii). Hot, sweaty, and rejuvenated, the full house retreated back outside into the rain.

(Where, relaxing under an awning, I was pleased to meet a Senegalese woman who lent official approval to my own long blue embroidered Senegalese boubou. Sorry, folks, no pictures, but those matching pointy baby blue shoes are always a conversation starter.)


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