I am a fishermen and for fishermen the water is a source of life, of joy, of meditation and inspiration to write songs.
— Baaba Maal
Art, entertainment, especially music, is understood by everybody.
— Nelson Mandela
There’s a moment in “A Voice for Africa”, the 40-minute documentary on Palm World Voices’ new DVD/CD box set, Baaba Maal: Senegal in which West African singer, Baaba Maal, stands on the banks of the River Senegal with a Griot, a West African poet, singer and advisor. The scene is shot like an Abba video, with the Griot looking directly to camera beside Baaba in profile. In a deep voice, the Griot sings, “When Baaba Maal comes to the river, it reminds me of our ancestors coming here.” Baaba slowly turns to us, and while dramatic, his action is without ego or indulgence. The camera then pans left and we see another Griot, equally as majestic as his companion. This Griot sings, louder, more deeply: “Baaba Maal is the most important figure for the Fulani people.”
That Baaba Maal is literally having his praises sung by these grand chiefs of Senegal, the same sense of wonder and appreciation in the Griots is transferred to the viewer. This is man with a dedicated following. His music is more than West African expression; it changes lives, it breaks boundaries, and provides encouragement and hope. In this moment with the Griots, Baaba Maal looks like a God.
Baaba’s status in West Africa is almost God-like. More than a singer and performer to his countrymen, Baaba is a sort of guru, a healer, bridging international gaps through music. To the Fulani people in Senegal, he represents communication and education. He’s a one-man World Book, having traveled far and wide to research his land, its stories and its secrets, to assist him in his main songwriting objective — to teach his listeners about African history, and to reinforce to the people of Senegal and West Africa that they have a voice in the world.
“I really like him because he sings in Pulaar and we are Fulanis and speak Pulaar,” a young girl from Baaba Maal’s hometown, Podor, says in “A Voice for Africa”. This reaction to Baaba’s music is among film’s highlights. Snapshots like it of West Africans indulging in their adoration of Baaba (including following him along streets as he visits his Podor home) is often more affecting for English-speaking viewers than Baaba’s music. Though the film’s tracing of Baaba’s career is fascinating, from his desire to emulate his father’s preaching through song to his eventual position as emissary of the UN Development Program to educate world youth about HIV and poverty, its depiction of Baaba in the eyes of his fans and followers works to give weight to his music, which, for non-African speaking listeners is beautiful and emotional but not always entirely understood.
Standout songs on the Senegal CD include “Africans Unite”, the lullaby-like “Koni” (a 10-minute live version of this appears on the DVD), and “Cherie” with the affecting English-sung words, “I need you to smile my love / It is like the sun shining on the night”. They stand out because of their stylistic familiarity. Baaba performs mostly in his native Pulaar, yet jazz, blues, reggae, and even hip-hop influences are clear throughout. The effect has a lot to do with Baaba’s gap-bridging — though utterly foreign sounding at times; these recognizable rhythms bring about his desired to connect to worldwide audiences. Baaba’s voice is almost a representation of West Africa; it’s raw and dirty, serene and subtle. The film’s cutting between Baaba on stage and shots of African fishermen and native animals works to build that bond between his voice and his country.
Baaba’s ability to connect with his songs appears again and again during the long scenes in “A Voice for Africa” of Baaba and his band performing. Whether on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, Nelson Mandela’s recent 46664 concert or in Podor or on the Mauritania border, Baaba is always greeted with the same cheers and shouts and hands waving in the air. The look on Baaba’s face during his shows is one of radiance. He’s not so much happy with himself, but with the people for standing and listening to his message. In the case of the Mandela concert, Baaba’s song about protecting the world’s children is applauded — after the first line is over, that applause becomes a veritable uproar of approval. And Baaba, remaining suitably stoic as he continues the sad song, beams with pride.
Though there is a language barrier, the Palm World Voices works to remove it with the box set’s range of educational extras. Included with the DVD and CD are National Geographic maps of Africa and Senegal, various informative pieces on the African Diaspora, information on traditional African instruments, on Islam, Podor, and the Empires of West Africa. The maps feature photos of African people in fields, by the river, working and playing. A 48-page, full-color booklet is also included, with more photos, information, and an interview with Baaba on his career, the Griots, his family, his religion, and music in general. And it is an education, one with a real bonus — listening and learning with Baaba Maal.