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A High-Voltage Singer With Low-Key Plans

To reconnect with fans, Senegal's Baaba Maal has an intimate set in mind for UCLA.

February 03, 2002|DON HECKMAN

Baaba Maal's appearance at the Hollywood Bowl last summer was a tour de force--a take-no-prisoners extravaganza that captivated his ecstatic listeners. The veteran Senegalese singer-songwriter, one of the most prominent of all African artists, led a 12-piece ensemble through a brilliantly energetic presentation, filled with visual color and body-moving rhythms.

That's not exactly what will be happening Thursday, however, when Maal returns to the Southland for a concert at UCLA's Royce Hall. As he has done a number of times in the past, Maal will counter the high-voltage sounds of what he describes as his "big band" ensemble with an entirely different, considerably smaller group.

"I needed to do an acoustic tour after the last album, 'Missing You ... Mi Yeewnii,' which is more acoustic," Maal explains. "And I also think people appreciate to see this other side of me and my music also. It's also different in that it is very intimate, very close to the people who come to see the show--something like an African party, the kind of thing we do a lot in Africa, and it's a lot of fun to share it here in this country."

It's not likely that Maal's UCLA concert will completely capture the atmospheric qualities of "Missing You," which was recorded in an open-air setting, with the sounds of crickets and village life in the background. But it's not surprising that he chooses, on a regular basis, to contrast his galvanizing, big-venue performances with appearances that allow a more direct connection with his listeners.

Maal, 41, still lives a good part of the time in his hometown of Podor in northeast Senegal. He seems to gain creative and spiritual sustenance from casual, outdoor performances for audiences that have known him for decades.

His primary supporter in maintaining that connection with his roots is a longtime friend, blind guitarist Mansour Seck, who, as always, will be in the Maal ensemble at Royce Hall.

"We started out together and learned a lot of things about traditional music together, so he's a reference," Maal says. "I can be wrong in a direction sometimes, but Mansour is always there to remind me not to go far away from the right direction."

The need to maintain touch with tradition is a continuing theme in Maal's thinking. Like many African artists, he did a great deal of recording in European studios in his early years. Although he managed to remain firmly connected to his roots, the domination of Paris, in particular, as a source of studio-generated Afro-pop tended to create a genre of music that often had more to do with synthesized sounds than with the creative ambience of Africa.

But according to Maal, the last five years have seen a significant change in that process as African promoters, producers and musicians have begun to take charge of their music. Maal sees this shift taking place not just in music, but in the panorama of African artistic expression.

"Starting in Africa, making CDs, concerts, even ballet and movies--I think it's better to do it that way, because we have really good elements, and it's a good thing to see them in their original form," he says. "I also think that being there, recording it there, is very important, because a lot of different things happen in Africa; the whole continent is a social environment that affects the music and the musicians."

Interestingly, the interplay between Africa and the West that figures in Maal's music is present--in vastly different, considerably more dramatic form--in the new film "Black Hawk Down." Vital to the musical ambience are several songs by Maal.

When he was asked to provide material for the picture, Maal was pleased on two significant counts. The first had to do with the visual qualities inherent to his musical tradition. Perhaps even more important, Maal, an ardent advocate of world harmony, believed strongly in the informative value of the picture.

"I know there are some people in Africa who criticize what happened in Somalia. But I'm someone who believes that we have to talk about something when it happens; we have to use it as an example to make it not happen again. To help people understand what we should do. And if my music can help to make it more clear in the minds of people, that's a good thing."

It's a belief that also has underscored Maal's work with the U.N. Development Program as a spokesman on the issue of HIV and AIDS in Africa. As Maal continues his battle--one he thinks is "getting just a little better"--against AIDS, he, like many other Muslim artists, is also dealing with the consequences of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Asked about his feelings, he pauses for a few moments before replying.

"Well," he finally says, "I can only hope that this style of music can help people deal with what happened. You know, Senegal is a very special country. In religion, the people there are very open in their minds. Muslims, Christians, animists all follow their own religion, because there's a great deal of tolerance. I hope it can be an example for the world.

"Because people need something to believe in, something that can go into their hearts and give them some hope," he continues, "I like to believe that this traditional music can do that as well, that it is true, that it comes from the heart, and that it goes to the heart. It brings love, and people need love now."

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Baaba Maal, Thursday at Royce Hall, UCLA, 8 p.m. $20 to $35. (310) 825-2101.

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Don Heckman writes about world music for The Times.

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