At 61, and with a double-figure back catalogue of albums under his belt in a career dating back to the late 1980s, Baaba Maal is right up there with the likes of Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita in the ranks of African musical royalty.
From his earliest records, Maal has been one of the most enthusiastic exponents of fusion music to emerge from the continent, continuing to sing mostly in Pulaar, the little-known tongue of the Senegalese region from which he hails. Over the years, Maal has collaborated with a host of artists from Europe and the US, both with stellar names like Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel and more unlikely choices, such as Essex singer-songwriter Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly (remember him?).
Maal’s influence led directly to the formation of crossover group Afro Celt Sound System, his music featured on the soundtrack of blockbuster film Black Hawk Down and he even appeared on the BBC’s re-recording of God Only Knows in 2014. A pretty impressive CV then, but does this veteran still have something fresh to offer on The Traveller, his first new album in seven years?
Recorded in both London and Senegal and produced by Johan Hugo from achingly hip Afro pop/dance collective The Very Best, it certainly seems like Maal has set out his stall to prove there’s life in the old dog yet. He kicks off at a fast pace with Fulani Rock, a strident yet hypnotic djembe-driven Afro beat jam encapsulating all Maal’s established strengths; his soaring voice in particular retains its impressive power and range.
Gilli Men then turns down the volume a little, with Maal’s effortlessly rhythmic guitar playing weaving intricate patterns around a ghostly vocal refrain from The Dakar Church Choir. Next up is One Day, a delicate gem that provides the perfect showcase for Maal to show the tenderness he can bring to a performance, while Lampenda features some wonderful guitar playing from the great man, along with newcomer Kalifa Baldi, in a heartfelt tribute to Maal’s fisherman heritage. Both these tracks are essentially simple, traditional compositions but producer Hugo’s influence provides a subtle sheen of echoing, spacious, almost dub-like atmospherics.
On the title track, he’s joined by Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons on banjo, but that doesn’t stop it being a joyously vibrant romp. The most divisive songs on The Traveller are the final two, respectively entitled War and Peace, both featuring narration from UK poet Lemn Sissay. The first sounds somewhat overwrought, with Sissay spitting and howling his world view (in English) like an angry man in the pub, backed by urgent, clattering drums. It feels at odds with the studied calm of the rest of the record, so it’s quite a relief when a floating flute, fluttering kora and Maal’s quintessentially lilting blues guitar appear over the horizon at the transition into the more mellow Peace. Intended as a plea to reject the twin threats of nationalism and war, while the musical textures certainly fit Sissay and Maal’s theme, these two tracks do seem a little out of place.
Overall, The Traveller is another very accomplished record by Maal and will be received warmly by his established fan base. He remains an artist able to balance different musical traditions adroitly and should be praised for his desire to explore important global issues in his songs while never losing touch with his roots. This won’t go down as one of his classic recordings, but nevertheless The Traveller is an enjoyable journey that shows its narrator still has plenty to say.