On Friday, Kwame Kwei-Armah takes to the road with Baaba Maal, in a touring event entitled “Tales from the Sahel”. The British playwright and the Senegalese singer will spend the six performances talking, the conversation interspersed with songs from Maal and his two accompanying musicians.
So far there has been no rehearsal, and little is planned. Kwei-Armah is unruffled. “We’ve known each other for a number of years. We’ll keep it pretty loose – no musical director or anything like that. We’ll sit down and get a feel for what works.” Maal, talking on a patchy phone line from Dakar, has his own ideas. “I know what I want to talk about – the economy, democracy, history, the power of young people and women. But we want to really try to make it natural and not something planned out.” Kwei-Armah wants the atmosphere to be “almost like a jam session. We won’t know which song he’s going to do next.”
Baaba Maal is one of Senegal’s leading musicians, a relentlessly innovative recording artist and an imperious performer. Kwei-Armah has explored his roots in the Caribbean and before that in Ghana. A decade Maal’s junior, he has been an un-abashed fan for years, but it was his own work as a playwright and actor that led to their first meeting. Maal went to a performance of Elmina’s Kitchen, Kwei-Armah’s play about a West Indian family in Hackney. “I really liked it,” says Maal now. “He had three generations of Africans on stage.” Impressed, he made a point of congratulating Kwei-Armah.
The two remained friends, and it was on Maal’s recommendation that Kwei-Armah was appointed as the artistic director of the third World Festival of Black Arts and Culture, held last year in Dakar. “We spent the whole night on his rooftop, talking. It was a beautiful night. We talked for six hours straight, and it was thrilling.”
In Senegal, Maal and his band regularly travel into rural areas, setting up camp in villages to play music and talk to the elders about subjects close to his heart, including the importance of education and the role of women. “He’s very comfortable with the format of talking like this,” says Kwei-Armah. “This will be like that. Only with the elders of Leeds. And the middle-aged crew of Leeds.”
The plan is essentially to recreate this sort of conversation. “I want to talk about Africa, about history, about culture,” says Maal. “Music is good for that, but it’s not enough. To explain ideas properly you have to talk to people. It’s a very African way. You talk about where you’ve come from, where you’re going. It’s about a new African society.”
Kwei-Armah predicts “a vibe where Baaba will talk about his life. It’s his show. I’m trying to find the questions that will tease out the songs. Or if that doesn’t work I can just say, ‘Play me something’.”
Maal will be accompanied not by his usual big band, Daande Lenol, but by two other players, the percussionist Mamadou Sarr and the multi-instrumentalist Jim Palmer. Sarr is a veteran of Maal’s tours of rural west Africa. “He is very good. I can ask him to play a rhythm and he will illustrate what I am saying.” The musicians will play a mixture of his own songs and African classics. “Because we are talking first of all about history, you have to understand the complexity. This is music from up to about 1960 [when many African countries gained their independence], the music I learned from my mother and from older people.” The songs will provide an oblique autobiography.
Kwei-Armah is looking forward to the tour with glee. “It’s like a fantasy,” he summarises. “You dial up your favourite artist, you ask them all the questions you want to ask, and you get them to play your favourite songs.” Invited to pick another musician with whom he would like to repeat the format, Kwei-Armah chortles at all the possibilities. “Stevie Wonder,” he says finally. “It has to be someone whose music you’re passionate about. But it also has to be about a personality you want to sit on a sofa with for 90 minutes. Baaba’s life is very rich and varied, including all his humanitarian work.”
Maal is stoutly confident. “We have discussed a lot in the last year about Africa: he’s from the diaspora but he feels the same things that I do.”
Tour details from www.blackroutes.org.uk