Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Oct 6th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"I think everyone should come!" he says. And it's not just a matter of ticket sales. He wants true participants. He wants us. He wants you!
"What we need, I think, is to give a power to all these people outside of the big cities who really, really want to express themselves -- to give them the right combination and organizations to sit and have a cultural voice. But also need the rest of the world to send people to make the link that is happening. Otherwise, the bridge we want to make will never happen. I invite everyone!"
The concept is really an extension of the themes powering his new album, 'Television,' his first studio set in eight years -- a wide-reaching collaboration with his regular associate, English musician Barry Reynolds, and singer Sabina Sciubba and keyboardist Didi Gutman of the New York band Brazilian Girls. The title song, while in some ways lamenting the cultural imposition of TV's ubiquity, also celebrates it as a source of connections.
Baaba Maal, 'Television'
"In the song, I first say that everyone who has the power and is able to have the gift of technology in his hands should know that if he desires to make it very positive for Africa, he can," he says.
Yes, Maal acknowledges, centralized control over media and information can be very bad, especially if it supplants local community interactions. But he's also seeing TV serve as a tool for Africans to at once enhance their own sense of postcolonial African-ness and find their place in the global community. More and more newscasts and documentaries, he says, are being broadcast in local languages rather than English or French. More information on issues and candidates are helping people participate in the democratic processes. Even sports are providing culture-defining experiences for the good -- he cites wrestling as a particularly popular sport in Senegal, reaching further and further into the country where not long ago people were very cut off. And with new technology, it can be a two-way process.
"They really want to be connected with the rest of the world," Maal says of his fellow West Africans. "They want to exchange ideas and participate and achieve things in a good way. In 'Television,' I wanted to approach this issue. You can't say you want to develop Africa and not talk to these people. They are the most important people. They leave their places and come to the big cities and have a lack of education and face poverty. We need to talk to them in their places before they come."
And what better chance than with a festival built by one of the true superstars of West African music?
"In the album I am trying to talk about this, and then I want to talk with them with my guests and the people who will come," he says. "We will bring some professional people from education who will take time of days in the festival to talk to press and to these people about what we have to do to make a better way. It's a platform for all these goals."
In those lights, the new song 'International' could well be the festival's anthem. As Maal says in the liner notes about the track, "Sometimes places in Africa can feel far away from everything happening. But we are connected to the rest of the world, and great things are happening in Africa":
Baaba Maal, 'International'
Of course, you don't have to go all the way there to experience the power of his music and message, though at the moment opportunities are very limited. He's doing just three U.S. appearances mixing conversation and short acoustic sets this fall (at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, the Claudia Cassidy Theater in Chicago Oct. 8 and at Joe's Pub in New York on Oct. 17), supplemented by radio performances on KCRW in Santa Monica (Oct. 6), the 'World Café' show on WXPN in Philadelphia (Oct. 15) and at WNYC in New York (Oct. 15).
And it seems that almost everything he did in the time since his last album was a variation on this theme, a testing out of the concepts and a building process for this platform. Asked about the key music experiences that went into shaping the vision of 'Television,' Maal counters with the statement, "I will say more about the projects or communications of people working together," then buoyantly rattles off accounts of encounters that were as much about communities and connections as about sounds.
"One of the stronger projects that really gave me an idea of the direction of my album is Africa Express that we did with Damon Albarn," Maal says, touting the live series he was a key participant in with the Blur singer, who has spurred numerous African music projects in recent years. "The first was in Glastonbury. We had all these African musicians -- Toumani Diabate and Tinariwen from Mali, Rachid Taha and not just pop but also young ones in hip-hop."
Even before that, he notes, he sought out an established hip-hop outfit, the Roots, traveling to their Philadelphia studio and seeing their concerts for a crash course in their organic approach to combining old and new sounds.
"I really got a chance to see their live performing style, the sound of their bass lines and drums and how they did that on stage," he says.
"Later when we did the Africa Express concert in Liverpool and had Franz Ferdinand, who come from a different environment, I jumped onstage with them and also Amadou & Mariam from Mali and I heard the sound from Mali with the sound from Europe mixing together very naturally," he says. "I did understand at the time that this is the new direction. This can be the explanation of world music that comes from different parts of the world fitting together but coming in a natural way. What I learned from jumping up with Franz Ferdinand is same that they learned. We shared a moment."
He also cites an event with Cameroon-born African icon Manu Dibango in London bringing together a variety of musicians and cultures. And then in the previous editions of Blues on the River, each held in a different set of locales, more ideas took shape.
"Most of the musicians who did come to join me are African musicians who come from traditional music, from Guinea and Mali and Mauritania. Not people that everyone knows but very great musicians. Vieux Farka Touré, Ali Farka Touré's son, came to perform, an exception. Some were performing at three or four or five o'clock in the morning and people were still there. Very good communication between them and the public. People did not leave the stadium."
And by the time he came to work on the new album, it really was as much about exchanges of ideas, musical and nonmusical, as anything. If was Reynolds who suggested he meet with the Brazilian Girls. Gutman was of particular interest to Reynolds for his the inventive sonic approaches the musician brought. But for Maal, Scuibba brought another valued dimension.
"Sabina is an intellectual," he says. "She lived and traveled with her parents, speaks many different languages. A real intellectual. I wanted not to just play music but talk with people I was working with about the elections, about [French president Nicolas] Sarkozy and Senegal and how we see the life and people. I really enjoy sitting down with them like musicians, but intellectual people who can talk about all the things that matter in the world. Sometimes the melodies and rhythms should come after. This is what used to happen in African in the past, is what I learned from my parents. This is how people write all this beautiful classical African music, people sitting down in a place and talking about what's going on in life and agriculture and politics or leaders and the king and kingdom and from there getting their instruments and get inspired and write melodies and rhythms. And this is what I want to do with them in a very modern way. Not in Africa but in London, have coffee, tea, biscuits, sometimes in a restaurant and sit down, have Japanese or Chinese or Indonesian food, just to be friends who talk about life and write songs. They were so happy to do it and I think I was more happy to find new friends also."
That, says Baaba Maal, is a true reflection of what he sees happening in Africa, and what he is trying to cultivate with Blues on the River.
"Especially in Senegal, the government and the people want to bring people together, think of the future of the continent involving music and musicians," he says. "This is something we are looking forward to for a long time. For now for the rest of the world, people are advertising festivals and big meetings and cultural organizations. There's the Festival Mondial the president is planning this year. Senegal is going to be a cultural center for culture and theater and music and fashion and all that stuff, All around West Africa now, Festival of the Desert, Festival of Niger, other interesting ones also happening, and this is something we wanted to have on the continent."
And we're invited to them all.