It’s been a long time since we heard a new studio album from Baaba Maal, but fans of the Senegal superstar will be relieved to hear that one of Africa’s key singers has once again come up trumps with Television.
Maal has had to overcome a lot of adversity in his 50-odd years, not least the fact that, as he was born the son of a fisherman, a career in music was not in keeping with the tradition that only the griot caste can produce singers and storytellers.
Recording solo since the late ’80s, Maal has hit upon a winning formula with his beguiling blend of African music, reggae and pop. He has a lot of detractors who feel his music is too refined and westernised to be considered ‘true’ African music. But hell what do they know? This is true Senegalese music and proud of it.
The title track opens the album with some bubbly electronics before launching into a laid back groove that hits the mark right away. Backing vocals from the Brazilian Girls (actually from New York) provide the counterpoint to Maal’s hypnotic voice, which weaves in and out of the rhythm but always knows when to drive the song onwards.
The funky Tindo sounds great and serves as the first real vocal showcase on the album, with Maal’s vocals taking centre stage as they swoop and soar around an addictive guitar line.
Miracle is the most traditional sounding song on the album, riding a Fulani rhythm that sounds like it could carry on forever. Maal takes a back seat here, content to allows the backing vocalists to provide the impetus while he interjects some delicious vocal trills.
Cantaloupe is a curious mix of African pop and down tuned guitar, with a whistling refrain that sounds hackneyed at first but gradually grows on the listener. I was reminded of a classic Serge Gainsbourg ballad, which may provide more ammo to Maal detractors but ultimately demonstrates a willingness to experiment that should be applauded.
The call and response vocals on A Song For Women propels the album right back into traditional Senegalese territory. As a mood piece it is terrific, creating a haunting atmosphere that builds and builds through the six-minute running time.
International is the album’s only misstep, its role call of world cities sounding a little dated to these ears. Which is a shame as the music builds up a heady stew with its pounding drums and sinuous keyboards.
Fortunately, Maal saves the best two tracks to last. Dakar Moon is a beautiful homage to the Senegal capital that utilises flamenco guitar in a very satisfying manner. Tindon Quando, meanwhile, plays the album out on an acoustic note, with Maal’s vocals miked high up in the mix. It’s a beautiful, intimate track that gives him free rein to show why he is considered one of Africa’s premier vocalists.
Maal is a Sengalese patriot first and foremost, a world music superstar by default. Television is an essential purchase for fans of West African artists, but should also be investigated by anyone who loves heartfelt, impeccably performed music.