23.1.16

Baaba Maal at The Royal Festival Hall


On Wednesday I went to see Baaba Maal at the Royal Festival Hall. I had no idea until just now but he’s much older than I thought. When I interviewed him in a hotel in Shepherd's Bush in 1993 for my film “Echo” I thought he was probably, ooh, 29. Nah, much older. I hadn't really clapped eyes on him in the intervening years and at 62 he looks the slightly portly senior statesman.

In 1992 Island had been hoping to break Baaba into the international dance market with "Yela". It was the company's ongoing dream that a convincing third-world superstar could be found to succeed Bob Marley. But given that they hadn't managed to reach escape velocity with King Sunny Ade's "Juju Music" it's surprising they kept faith in the strategy. "Yela" is nice! But: chirpy, literal, didactic and francophile it never stood a snowflake's chance in hell.

The sensible approach, indeed what I would have done, was like Martin Meissonnier for Sunny Ade, keep it linguistically opaque, downbeat and add lashings of delay. With his acoustic material Baaba would have made a more durable impact, albeit one at the outer fringes of nineties electronica and Post-Rock. A contradiction perhaps. Something like his epochal "Tono" Senegalese-only cassette release which we rinsed when touring the country was closer to the tastes of the UK underground.

At the time it was Simon Booth who had been entrusted with Baaba's career. I spoke to him just before we'd left on our mission when I was at a height of anxiety about the whole trip and remember him saying, in fact in a generous and basically reassuring way, that he had played The Orb's Adventures beyond The Ultraworld to musicians in Senegal and they hadn't blinked. They'd liked it. I do remember my 22-year old self, like, scoffing quietly: "Tsk, The Orb". But really it was a fair-enough and well-intended observation.

As it turns out Baaba has carved himself an international niche regardless of near-hits like the 1994 "Firin' in Fouta" LP. These days in music it's all about concerts, not recordings, anyway. I notice last year's "The Traveller" is only preceded by a 2009 release and before that it's 2001. Big. Gaps. He has styled himself as a pan-African icon which is very sensible given the fact that Western audiences can't grasp the differences between north, south, east and west african sounds. At the Royal Festival Hall, where he has apparently acquired a bureaucratic status fitting his talent, he was supported by Blick Bassy from the Cameroon.

80% of the gig, plying a seventies Malian desert-style set and paring back Senegal's strong afro-cuban flavours, was extremely successful, sublime even; giving full rein to Baaba's exquisite, angelic voice. Later on the drum kit (ironically steered by a Cuban) hit a 4/4 rock stride which I understood. I mean, I get it, it's not wrong, but although the crowd loved it, I found it a tad overwhelming.

Baaba Maal. What a beautiful man! Long may he prosper.