Dakar Calling

Baaba Maal Comes to the Live Oak Music Festival

by Josef Woodard

As usual, this year’s Live Oak Music Festival program takes its listeners on a dizzying trip all over the musical map. But the highlight of this edition comes on Sunday evening, with the eagerly awaited arrival of Baaba Maal, the globally beloved vocalist from Senegal.

Maal suits Live Oak’s open-ear programming policy perfectly: he’s a “world music” superstar who has, during his 30 years in the international ear, collaborated on crossover projects with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and others. Next up, he’ll collaborate with hip hoppers The Roots in Philadelphia. Why not?

He spoke with The Indy on the phone recently, backstage before a concert in a huge venue called the Foire, in Dakar, Senegal.

Throughout your career, you’ve virtually been an ambassador of Senegal. Was that a goal? I can say yes, definitely. When I was growing up, I went to the university and then became involved in the music scene there. Listening to the radio here, it was always western North American music — rhythm and blues, jazz, and all that stuff — but never proper, well recorded, presented, and organized African music. I did grow up with African music, and I knew it would be interesting for people to discover it. My goal was to make this music accessible to everyone in the world … to give a place for African music.

On your albums, you experiment with Western-style directions, but also return to your roots. Is that important — to cross over but also have your grounding? Roots, in anyone’s society, are very important. By the time I was really deeply feeling my roots, I was growing up. I didn’t expect to be known in Europe or the United States. But I was feeling that I am a musician, and this is my background and my roots. This is how I dreamed to be a musician.

At the same time, there’s a complexity within my personality. I believe deeply in the African tradition, and there are a lot of beautiful elements in that. But I also believe in modern life. I went to school. I’ve traveled. I know that I’m part of the citizens of the world and that the opportunities that come belong to me also. … And I’m someone who is very curious in life. I don’t want to stay in one place. I want to travel, play music everywhere, to meet people, and see what they can bring into my music, while I see what I can bring to their music.

This is why I do all these collaborations with people. I enjoy the music and ideas that they have, and to see whether you can bring them together.

Awareness of African music has expanded greatly since you started out. Does it make you feel good that, for instance, in a place like California, many people know what a djembe and a kora are? Yes (laughs) — they know djembe, they know kora, they know talking drums, all these things are very well-known. See, the music is coming down to that level. By the way, I really love California. I love the people, the music, and the place. Maybe it’s very similar to what I know. Certain places I love much better than others. I can say it’s one of the places I really enjoy performing.

You’ve used your fame for various charitable causes. Has that always been dear to your heart? Always. You can be a very big entertainer in Africa, but at the same time … what your life should be about is using that for your community. It’s always important. We are talking about the fight against HIV/AIDS, to support that, or associations for the development of communities.

My band and I have been doing this for a long time. A lot of times, we can go for 10 or 15 days to play music in four or five different places with little generators. And the money that we get there we share with the people, so they can buy tables for their little classrooms or their health center. We’ve been doing that for a long time.

It can be very tiring for a musician, but at the same time, you get a lot of love and support from people, and it’s really helpful. It gives more importance to your life.

Music is such a high art, rich with humanity and spirituality. You’re also giving back in that way, wouldn’t you say? Yes, and I don’t regret it. From my government to the people in the streets and at the airport, everywhere I go, people give that feeling back to me. That’s the most important thing in life, to give back. But they give back with respect and love, and that’s really important, something you can’t buy with money.

411: The Live Oak MUsic Festival goes down this Friday, June 16 through Sunday, June 18th at the Live Oak Camp on Highway 154 near Lake Cachuma. Call 781-3030 or see For more information about Baaba Maal, check out

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