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
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
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
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 liveoakfest.com. For more
information about Baaba Maal, check out www.baabamaal.tv