His first album in seven years is a richly varied work that showcases one of the world’s most distinctive voices
Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal’s first album in seven years crams an astonishing complexity of colour and variety into a recording that weighs in at just 37 minutes in length. Soothingly calm tracks rub along with polyrhythms, traditional instrumentation mixes up with processed digitised sounds, and guest stars drop by in amongst stripped back tracks that call to mind his early works. An album made before, during and after the pandemic, it commands attention.
In 1974, Maal left the northern Senegalese settlement of Podor to study music in the capital Dakar, obsessed already with the communicative power of song and how it can be used to achieve something truly supernatural, continuing his studies at the Paris Conservatoire. His storied journey since has included umpteen albums, soundtrack work on films as diverse as Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Ryan Coolger’s Black Panther and the sequel Wakanda Forever (in which he had a cameo) and collaborations with everyone from Damon Albarn’s Africa Express to Brian Eno, alongside humanitarian work and founding both a charity and the Blues du Fleuve festival in his hometown. Just ahead of his seventieth birthday, with Being he has returned to his roots and nourished them, as he always does, with a distillation of what he’s learned on his travels. And there are moments aplenty here where he achieves what he set out to do all those years ago.
We’re told that the seven songs here, recorded in Brooklyn, Dakar and London, are variously about “generational debts and conflicts, rivers, watching people, seeing new generations of Africans make themselves felt, the impact of technology, remembering dreams, the magic of place, the strangeness of time, the feeling of home, the stars above, and the rhythms inside and out”. The Very Best’s Johan Karlberg, who worked on Maal’s 2016 album The Traveller, is again on hand to splice together the traditional with the modern, synthesising sounds in amongst and around Maal’s compositions. Less a clash of styles and more an intertwining of two paths to the same place, Maal’s roots and Wolof language lyrics here combine with an urging towards a shared, bright future.
The compulsive Yerimayo Celebration starts the album off in strident style, building from a solitary voice and guitar which are joined by percussion courtesy of Mamadou Sarr, and a droning and curiously calming grounded synth note, a combination that soon roars the album to thrilling life while Maal’s instantly recognisable voice comes to dominate front and centre. In contrast, Boboyillo, featuring the processed vocals of Rougi and synthesised sounds, is a slow jam with a modern sheen that demonstrates its creator’s range, while in Freak Out, Karlberg is joined by his bandmate, Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya, for an overdriven tour de force that’s one of the album’s highlights. Maal, as he has throughout his career, is here content to step out of the spotlight to allow it to shine on others before bringing his vocals to bear on the latter half of the song.
Ndungu Ruumi is all but transcendent, mix-filling backing vocals and percussion surrounding Maal’s plaintive lead in a soundscape that brings real depth – and masculine vocal strength – to an addictive loop, while Agreement offers light and shade around another loop, changing the mood time and again. Mbeda Wella, featuring Mauritanian rapper Paco Lenol, creates a chant-loop and builds to crescendoes through small tweaks each time round, adding and taking out backing vocals and reaching a communal catharsis.
Album closer Casamance Nights, recorded in the open air with a backing chorus of cicadas, all but showcases the vast, star-filled African sky and the scent of nature all around, with Maal’s always-compelling voice contrasting with a picked loop of bass ngoni from long-time collaborator Barou Sall. Clocking in at nine minutes, it roots the album calmly and with purpose in time and place, all while suggesting timelessness and universality. As with every track on this perfectly crafted piece of work from one of the world’s most distinctive voices, it is really quite beautiful.