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Baaba Maal: Out of Africa?

How did this Senegalese musician become a superstar without forsaking his culture?

August 31, 2002

How did this Senegalese musician become a superstar without forsaking his culture?

It's not hard to hear the echoes of Africa in music around the world. From American jazz and blues to the sambas and salsas and reggae of Latin America and the Caribbean, much of the globe's music bears the definitive stamp of its African origins.

This "Made in Africa" stamp makes the lack of a true African musical superstar on the scale of a Michael Jackson or a Whitney Houston or Bob Marley even more puzzling.

The closest that U.S. audiences often get to African music is translations by Western artists. Witness Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland.

Perhaps the closest Africa has come to having a figure of worldwide musical renown was the legendary Nigerian singer Fela Kuti. Fela's mix of African music — blended with a healthy dose of U.S.-styled rhythm and blues and jazz — was a highly infectious and unique hybrid.

Fela also sang many of his songs in English. Thus, Fela navigated language barriers that kept music from other cultures out of U.S. and British record shops — and off of those countries' radio stations.

Fela did not conquer the world, however. He fought deadly battles with Nigeria's political leaders that sapped his strength.

His music — particularly its loose structure and overtly political lyrics, not to mention the length of his individual songs — also proved difficult to market to cultures raised on the three-minute pop song.

Though he died in 1997, his music continues to be influential — but little heard or recognized in pop circles.

Other musicians from Africa have also had mixed success. Take Youssou N’Dour. Mr. N'Dour often sings in French — and he has collaborated with many notable pop music personalities, including Peter Gabriel. Yet, he has not broken through as a major artist outside of French-speaking cultures.

Algerian rai musicians such as Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami have also collaborated with musicians ranging from Don Was (of the group Was Not Was) and international pop star Sting.

Yet they have had similar troubles breaking through the barriers that seem to keep African music in the ranks of an acquired taste.

Baaba Maal is the latest African musician to cause a sensation among those who follow such trends in world music closely. His latest album, Missing You (Mi Yeewnii), is an appealing blend of music.

There are gentle but insistent rhythms and deeply soulful singing, accompanied by softly intricate acoustic music — much of it played on traditional African instruments.

Yet, what differentiates Baaba Maal from other African artists is his ability to straddle two worlds. Much of Missing You has a strong connection to the African world, and Baaba Maal sings in his native language of Pulaar, which is spoken in Senegal.

Yet, he also has strong links to the world of commercial rock and pop.

Much of Missing You was recorded outdoors in Mr. Maal's native Senegal. The artist used a mobile studio to get this natural sound — a technique that even caught the occasional sounds of the crickets that shared the "studio."

Yet, Mr. Maal did not stop there. Noted pop producer John Leckie — who has recorded rock acts that include worldwide hitmakers Radiohead and The Stone Roses — produced the Missing You sessions.

The care with which the record is produced — its clean contours and its warm, rich sound — make it clear that Mr. Leckie brought a Western ear to the proceedings.

Once recorded in Africa, the tapes were then taken to other studios — including London's famous Abbey Road studios, where the Beatles made their 1969 album of that name — for more work.

This dazzling and sympathetic production of Missing You makes its complexities of rhythm and melody even more rewarding. It is truly a triumphant global blend of African music and a more conventional pop surface.

It is difficult to predict whether or not Baaba Maal will succeed in making a major breakthrough in Western pop charts — where many other African musicians have failed. But his strategy of taking the best of his native culture and marrying it to the technology that helps create the pop music known all over the world is both intriguing and truly global.