Senegal sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean on the tip of the round curve of Western Africa. For as long as people have lived there, it has been a stop on the trading and migration roots. With the coming of the European nations, it became an instrumental port in the slave trade.
When the last colonial rulers, the French, banned slavery in 1857, the country reverted to its traditional role of safe haven for political refugees and centre for trade. The majority of nations in North West Africa and Arabia relied on Senegal for salt. This intermingling of cultures and nations has played a major role in the development of Senegalese music.
In Senegal, like other West African nations, there exists a type of caste system. Though not as rigid as others, it still can dictate a person’s choice of career. Musicians, especially singers, are drawn from those who are members of a griot family.
More then just a singer, a griot serves as the repository of local history, knowing the stories of all the local families and able to recount their deeds in poems or song. They have been advisors to kings, teachers who instruct people in the right way to live, and what role they play in society as they grow up.
To aspire to be a singer when not from a griot family is to dream the unthinkable. To actually succeed in that dream is the sign of a unique individual. Not only do they have to be a person of singular talent, but display some characteristic that allows them to transcend traditional cultural boundaries.
Baaba Maal is one such man. Born the son of a fisherman, and destined, at best, for the professional class, he developed a love of singing at an early age. Discouraged by his parents and the griot form pursuing this hopeless dream, he nevertheless did not give up hope. His faith was rewarded when he began to receive assistance from the son of his family’s griot.
Mansour Seck has since become Baaba Maal’s closest friend and musical companion. Without him, he would have never learned learn the different styles of music and singing that are practiced throughout West Africa.
“…if a griot didn’t want Baaba Maal to sing…the music of the griots, they couldn’t say no to Mansour Seck, because Mansour Seck was from one of the best families of the griots…” Baaba Maal talking about learning music
Palm World Voices’ third collection in their series of world music focuses on this remarkable man from Senegal. Simply titled Baaba Maal we are told the story of his rise from the son of a fisherman to that of an international music star who now shares the stage with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Sting.
The story of his music is also the story of Senegal. For music is the lifeblood of Senegalese society. From the griot’s songs of history and learning to the calling of the faithful to prayer in the mosques, music permeates all aspects of their culture.
Like Africa and Vedic Path before it, Baaba Maal contains a CD of music, a documentary DVD, an illustrated information booklet, and a detailed National Geographic map. Each component enhances our appreciation of the man and the musician. Just as importantly, they place his music into the cultural context of Senegal.
The music is magnificent. He lives up to his billing as being one of the most exciting musical talents in Africa. Not only does he integrate traditional Senegalese instruments with contemporary, the music seamlessly combines elements from all over the world. Pop, jazz, and reggae meld with African rhythms and sounds to create a true world music.
Baaba Maal may sing in his native tongue, but the listener loses little of the emotional impact. His voice is one more musical instrument being played in harmony with the rest of the band. Soaring from the bottom of the scale to its heights, he takes one on a roller coaster ride not easily forgotten.
The DVD is split into two parts. The first is a documentary that recreates Baaba Maal’s story. Acting as our guide, he retraces the path he took from his fisherman roots to his current position of international performer. Combined with the information booklet, this section of the disc gives the viewer insight into the cultural world of Senegal.
The concert footage included in the DVD allows one a tantalizing glimpse of Baaba Maal’s incredible power on stage. From frenetic up-tempo dance numbers to a slow ballad we see his complete range as a performer. African dance parties can continue for hours on end, some of that energy and exuberance are captured in these performance clips.
Baaba Maal is Palm World Voice’s third release in their initial six part series of explorations into World Music. Once again, they have created a package that takes one beneath the surface of the music to show the heart beating behind the exterior. These box sets are a wonderful addition to any music lover’s library.
Baaba Maal will be in stores everywhere on August 9th 2005.