Bringing It All Back Home; or, Baaba Maal's (and John Leckie's) Finest Hour(s)
Baaba Maal is one of Senegal’s two biggest musical superstars (the other is Youssou N’Dour), and the only one who sings in the Fulani language of his people. I don’t want to repeat all the biographical information I included in my concert review on this site, but let’s do a little long-story-short thing: Maal was not supposed to be involved in music at all, given his family’s position in Senegal’s regimented social structure, but he and his family’s griot, the blind Mansour Seck, struck out on their own back when Maal was at university, and neither one has ever looked back. Maal’s beautiful voice and nimble guitar playing (and, let’s face it, good looks) destined him for stardom, and his openness to European music have helped him make a name for himself virtually everywhere in the world, except the (largely) Afro-phobic United States.
Maal is well-known as an amazing performer; he can connect with audiences who don’t understand a word he sings, because he understands that music is a higher form of communication than speech. And when Palm Pictures picked him up as an artist, his destiny as a worldwide name seemed locked in. But his last few albums have seemed overly focused on making everyone happy: Nomad Soul was a great record, but it didn’t come close to capturing the heavily West African groove of Djam Leelii or Baayo. What was really called for was a return to Senegal.
And that’s exactly what this record is, literally—but it took one of the world’s finest rock producers to pull it off. Enter John Leckie. Already semi-legendary for his engineering and mixing work with Pink Floyd and the Plastic Ono Band (John Lennon nicknamed him “Lickie”), Leckie’s first record as a producer was XTC’s White Music in 1978. Since then, he has gone on to produce some of the finest rock music ever: the debut album by the Stone Roses, Radiohead’s The Bends, other XTC records including their fake-psychedelic-band-from-the-60s project the Dukes of Stratosphear, The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall (that band’s finest moment, in my opinion), and the list goes on and on. Leckie saw Maal perform at the WOMAD festival, and jumped at the chance to produce him in his native land.
I’m not a music-tech guy in the least, so it’d be stupid of me to try to paraphrase everything that went into the recording and production of this album. (A really wonderful account can be read here, and there is a mini-documentary contained on this enhanced CD.) Suffice it to say that Leckie and engineer Ben Findlay dragged a lot of expensive equipment down to Nbunk, one of Maal’s farms in Toubab Dialaw, a Senegalese village about 80 miles from Dakar. There, they fired up a generator, set up recording machines all over the place, and captured some of the most stunning music you will ever hear in your entire life. Gone are all the Parisisms and “world music” clichés that clouded Firin’ in Fouta and Nomad Soul; although additional recording was done at a couple of other studios, this is as close as anyone is ever going to get to capturing the real feel of Baaba Maal.
You feel it from the very beginning. Children’s voices are the first thing we hear on “Yoolelle Maman,” and they don’t go away just because Maal’s rough-edged muezzin-call bursts forth—they are there, bubbling underneath the cascade of acoustic instruments and call-and-response vocals. In fact, Nbunk itself is the true guest star on the album: chickens crow, crickets chirp, people talk and laugh and listen. In fact, you can almost see some of the songs here; the video for “Miyaabele” on the disc didn’t really add to my impressions of this song as much as it confirmed what I’d already visualized while listening to it. Leckie has done his job by staying out of the way and letting the music take over.
Let’s focus a bit more on “Miyaabele”, a 6/8-time meditation on pan-African unity, which can be seen as the album in miniature. It starts with Maal’s acoustic guitar playing a simple dignified line; Seck’s guitar joins in, followed quickly by a third acoustic guitar played by Kante Manfila; the percussion, led by Lansine Kouyate’s simple balafon figure begins; Kaouding Cissokhou picks out an alternate melody on his 21-string koro; and the voices come in. Two-part harmonies turn into four-part harmonies, break apart so that Maal can get back to the lead, come back together, reform—this is, above all, an album about the human voice. There are no lengthy instrumental Fela-style jams, no “tribal drum” sections, nothing that people think of when they stereotype African music. Neither, thankfully, are there any songs that sound like they were concocted in a studio with a couple of singers and massive banks of synthesizers. All frippery has been stripped away.
What remains is a spectacular hybrid of West African styles. Maal explains on the CD’s documentary that he has intentionally merged instruments that aren’t “supposed” to go together so that no African can say “that’s not MY music,” and the strategy works perfectly. “Fa Laay Fanaan” is an understated piece where the muttering percussion mirrors the staccato vocal melody, and the sound remains gloriously elusive, even when some familiar benchmarks (stunning guitar licks) make their way through the mix. The next song, “Leydi Ma”, is slower and more foreboding, in keeping with its ecological warnings. The delicate spider-web of Cissokho’s koro work on the high-life strut of “Fanta” has nothing to do with the folk-blues jam of “Kowoni Maayo (Mi Yeewnii)”, and that’s to be expected, because the former is an ancient song about a river spirit and the latter is a heartbroken ode to a departed lover. Baaba Maal doesn’t have a certain sound as much as he has an approach: have a lot of arrows in the quiver, so you can use the right one in the right circumstance.
And while this is clearly his album, we must pay some respect to the British producer who pulled this off. He has managed to take a heavily-layered sound and make it sound clean and pure and authentic, and he has done so seemingly without any ego whatsoever. I can’t hear any muddled moments on the entire album: everything sounds perfect, like we are right there in the village square watching and listening. Maal may make better albums than this, but he will never make one that sounds better. John Leckie: finest producer ever.
These are songs about Africa: about Senegal in particular, about how women rule the world and about how African men are beginning to step up as fathers, and about how the rest of the world needs to respect the contributions and the potential of Africa. The album closes with “Allah Addu Jam”, or “Prayers for Peace”, a rocking tone poem about the pride of the Fulani people: some of the translated lyrics are “Past glories are today’s proud tales / Today’s proud tales will be tomorrow’s symbols”. It’s a cultural history, a cautionary tale, and a celebration all in one. The world traveler has returned home, and his wisdom and heart are in fullest effect when he discusses the issues closest to the hearts of his people.
But many songs here are more universal in their aspect. “Laare Yoo” is about the simple joys of talking and hanging out with your friends and fellow villagers; “Jamma Jenngii” is the most romantic lover’s-rock one might ever wish to have playing in the background when the lights are low; and “Yoolelle Maman” is a tribute to the sacrifices that parents make for their children. Baaba Maal has finally made an album that truly sums up his beautiful expansive soul, one that addresses Senegalese and African issues at the same time that it speaks to all humans everywhere. Missing You (Mi Yeewni) is a truly astounding achievement that I feel may well be the highest achievement of modern African music.