The Triumph of Pure Sound
Baaba Maal was supposed to be onstage at 8:00 p.m., and now it’s 8:25, and the crowd is getting as unruly as a bunch of Madison liberals can get. It’s like every Madison stereotype has been poured into the Wisconsin Union Theater: affluent middle-aged white liberals; young firebrands with dubious dreadlocks; international student types. Every African person in Wisconsin must be here; they’re the best-dressed, with the best-dressed children. The theater, done in that peculiar architectural style called “dressed-up lecture hall”, is packed to the balcony and restless.
This is partially because Maal was here three years ago, in this very theater, with his big-band show featuring over a dozen musicians, dancers, and singers, and is now back with a stripped-down acoustic show; yep, we only see the stage set up for six musicians. So we’re anticipating a very personal take on the music of this international star from Senegal. It’s also because Ethiopian hottie singer Gigi, who was supposed to open, cancelled, and partially because the Palm Pictures promotional video, good as it is, ended five minutes ago. So when Laurie Mlatawou appears to welcome us all, we shut up real quick. This is also out of respect; Mlatawou is one of the hosts of the Saturday “PanAfrica” show on our mighty community radio station WORT-FM radio, and everybody listens to WORT, and everybody here listens to “PanAfrica”. So Laurie gets right to the point: please welcome Baaba Maal and Daande Lenol!
Baaba Maal walks out onstage alone. He is improbably tall and impressively regal and he wears a huge silver-white robe. He sits down on a stool and asks us, “So how you all doing tonight?” We respond with enthusiasm. He says that tonight is going to be just like the way it is back in his home country, in his hometown, when he and his friends sit around to play music—“the songs come out just like that.” And he picks up his acoustic guitar and starts to play, with his impossibly long fingers, a melody that could really be from anywhere: Ireland, Appalachia, Siberia, Buenos Aires. But when he opens his mouth to sing, it is clear that Africa is here, in south-central Wisconsin.
He wasn’t supposed to be here at all, because he wasn’t supposed to be a musician. Maal is an ethnic Fulani; most musicians in Senegal are Wolof. He comes from the fishing caste, and while you can move up from there—his parents encouraged him to study law—you are not supposed to sing and play professionally, because that is left to the griot caste. But once away at university in St. Louis, Senegal’s second city, Maal found himself thinking about nothing but music: the way his muezzin father called the others for prayer five times a day, the voice of his mother singing songs she wrote herself. So he moved to Dakar and joined the 70-piece orchestra Asly Fouta to learn the ropes. Later, he hooked up with his griot friend from Podor, Mansour Seck, and toured the country obsessively as a duo, learning songs and rhythms from everyone they could.
Since then, Baaba Maal has blossomed into one of the biggest stars in Africa, and Mansour Seck, who is now blind, has remained by his side. So when this first beautiful song is over, the crowd knows what to expect. “Now I’d like to introduce my best friend in the world,” Maal says, “Mr. Mansour Seck!” We burst into cheers as Seck is led out by a roadie and another musician, Kaouding Cissiko. (More about him later.) Seck looks like a happy Gandhi as he yells out, “Good evening!” and gets the crowd going with finger-snapping and clapping as Maal stars an easy rockin’ tune. They sing together, more in unison than in harmony, but then suddenly the three of them hit a chord for three perfect seconds and then snap it off and go back to the song. These are musicians who know each other like they know themselves—if any of them have an ego they don’t show it. It’s inspiring.
Slowly, the rest of the stools are filled up: guitarist Kante Manfila comes out for some stirring flamenco work; a bass player (this might have been Sadiki Kouyate, with whom Maal has played forever, but I couldn’t hear very well) comes in to add gentle authoritative funkiness; and Barou Sall comes out to play his hoddu, a tiny four-stringed hunter’s lute. Sall and Maal have a hilarious duet in which they try to follow and mimic each other’s twisting melody lines. Sure, it’s an old trick, but it works because of both men’s virtuosity and Sall’s mock-defiant facial expressions. They’re having fun up there, and it spreads—I look around and suddenly there are young hippie couples dancing in the side aisles.
Things really burst into flower when Kaouding Cissiko puts down his little bell-like percussion instrument and picks up his kora. This is a 21-string harp that is plucked with all ten fingers, and can sound like everything from a mandolin to a tin drum. Cissiko is self-taught on the kora, and his attack is apparently quite unconventional—I wouldn’t know, myself, except to say that I am a devoted fan from here on out. By the time they get to “Fanta”, an old song that Maal reprises on his latest album, Mi Yeewni—Missing You, Cissiko has almost completely taken over the sound of the band. Watching everyone else’s face during his extended solo at the beginning of this lovely song is quite an education in itself: Maal is lost in the music, and Seck beams. As soon as I can find Cissiko’s CD Kora Revolution, it’s mine—he’s an artist worth seeking out and treasuring.
It’s not really surprising that this is the tightest band I’ve ever seen or heard in my life—after all, Maal has been leading groups for 25 years, and both Cissiko and Seck at least are lifelong griots. But what is really impressive is that they are able to turn out song after rhythmically complex song with virtually no percussion at all. Every once in a while Maal or Manfila will grab some kind of hand-drum, but this is rare. These pieces get by on momentum and love and a whole lot of hand-clapping. We, the audience, have become the drum. We’ve also become the dancers, too; more and more people start to get up and move. A man in a yellow sweater comes up front and ostentatiously throws a series of bills on the stage, one by one, while the crowd cheers. Two women, dressed up in glorious orange and purple robes with full headdresses, start whirling around in front of the musicians. During one fevered jam, a man lifts his young child up on stage, and Maal hoists the kid up on his shoulders. Again, we all cheer. It’s beautiful, it’s a free-for all. At this point, my own notes have gotten kind of pathetic, because it’s tough to write while you’re shaking your ass. It’s the triumph of pure sound.
Finally, they blow it all out in a great hot piece in which everyone gets a solo. These series of solos end with Mansour and Baaba doing some amazing high-life dancing, and then making their way off stage together, with Maal leading his blind griot in a way both tender and just as normal as can be. It’s a perfect end to the concert, but thankfully there’s still the encore to come. When everyone else comes back out, it’s clear they are all completely exhausted, but Maal has more to prove. He whips the band into another frenzied piece, increasing the tempo subtly by nodding his head here and there. No one is sitting anywhere anymore: we’re all bobbing up and down, back and forth.
And they’ve saved the best trick for last. The last song they do is driven purely by voice; hardly anyone touches their instruments at all. Maal’s tenor is strong enough here to raise the hair right off your head, and everyone matches him in intensity. I realize that we are all dancing to the sound of the human voice. And then I forget and I continue dancing. The musicians leave the stage and I am still dancing. And as I sit here three days later, I am still dancing.