Baaba Maal: Television

Baaba Maal
Palm Pictures

Any album is a monologue, our chance to hear another person set up a theme and then elaborate on it. The other person is sometimes a group of people, but as a band they’re unified, and the thoughts we’re listening to are theirs, the opinions of a collective entity, and no one else’s. The Beatles is still the Beatles, no matter who was writing the songs.

This is the way I think of albums, and I believe this is why I came away from Television feeling jarred and a little disoriented. Each song is very different to the one that went before it, so the monologue in this case doesn’t follow a steady line of thought, instead it hops around from one subject to another, as if someone came up to you and said, “This morning I bought a large carton of milk, modern psychologists should study neuroscience, did you hear that a mine collapsed in China last week, the colour blue makes me sleepy.” It’s a set of singles waiting to be pulled apart and used wherever the person doing the pulling thinks is appropriate. “International”, four and a half minutes of a strong beat and a repeated recitation of lyrics, is aimed at the same clubs that, 20 years ago, would have embraced Mory Kante’s “Yeke Yeke”. The doe-eyed flamenco “Dakar Moon” is looking for a romantic situation where it can dangle in the background, and the title track wouldn’t mind nuzzling up to people who tingled with excitement at Amadou and Mariam’s recent “Sabali” but at the same time wondered if it was maybe a bit too squeaky and tart.

The music-buying public hasn’t heard much from Maal since the benign Missing You/Mi Yeewnii in 2001. There was a Best of the Early Years that came out in 2003, a live album recorded while he was touring, re-releases of older albums from the 1990s, other things here and there like the performance of “Baayo” that turned up on the Ceder Cultural Center’s 2006 compilation of live tracks and a song named “Bushes”, recorded with the UK duo 1 Giant Leap, but no new full-length studio albums until this one. His early partnership with Mansour Seck has been replaced by a collaboration with the Brazilian Girls, and his sound has switched from the acoustic guitar-work of Missing You into dance and pop mixed with Senegalese folk music. He’s spent his career moving between folk and electro-folk, and in spirit Television comes closer to Lam Toro and Firin’ in Fouta than to Missing You, or his international debut, Djam Leelii.

The highlight of all of these albums is the Maal voice, a secular version of his muzzein father’s cry, the development of which he has explained, prosaically, in interviews: “When I was young, we didn’t have a PA system or any other technical thing and anytime you play in front of 200 or 300 people you have to make everyone hear you.” Singing has never been Maal’s problem. Finding something interesting for the voice to do is more of a challenge. The restless plethora of styles in Television might have been an attempt to tackle that. The experiment sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, although not everybody agrees on the songs that do and don’t. I’ve already seen two people clash over “Cantaloupe”, a rockinghorse melody accompanied by the sound of a man whistling, and I’m on the side of Robin Deneslow at the Guardian, who called it “embarrassing.” The whistler seems to be twinkling his invisible eyes so adorably knowingly that I end up despising him. Deneslow suggests that the technology on Television sometimes threatens to swamp Maal’s voice, and that’s true too — the first time I heard the album I came away thinking that he’d barely opened his mouth at all, and it wasn’t until I’d listened to it again that I changed my mind. Think Amadou and Mariam’s Welcome to Mali rather than Missing You. Lots of electro-games.

RATING 6 / 10
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