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“Who”, asks a visitor to the British Library, “is that man over there?” The designer-clad man in his early sixties posing moodily for photographs against textile-inspired backgrounds of the exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is, we explain, one of Senegal’s leading citizens, a musician, activist and curator. “That’s Baaba Maal? I love him! I love his music!”
I’d asked Maal whether he would go round the exhibition with me, and the visit has ballooned into a royal progress, with one of the exhibition’s curators, Janet Topp Fargion, providing us with a guided tour.
The opening hall juxtaposes three exhibits: an 1854 linguistic grammar, an Nsibidi gourd covered with carvings, and a talking drum. Downstairs, in the first section, on pre-colonial west Africa, Maal hovers over a photo of a library in Timbuktu, since ransacked by Islamic militants. We pause by a 1921 picture of Kofi Jatto playing two drums into a giant recording horn, and listen to the interplay of rhythms underneath the hissing scratches of a wax cylinder.
Maal has himself been recording, in Senegal and London. A new album, The Traveller, his first since 2009, due to be released in January, is produced by Johan Hugo, from London Afropop band The Very Best.
“I met Johan as part of [musical collective] Africa Express, and we started exchanging ideas about music. The big opportunity came from a festival I run, Blues Du Fleuve.” The festival takes place in Maal’s home province of Fouta, where the Senegal River divides Senegal from Mauritania. “I invited Johan and Winston [Marshall] from Mumford & Sons. After the festival we had one week to write songs. It all started by the river.”
The album combines distinctly Fulani rhythms with occasional western textures: the soft-rock coda of pounding piano beats on “Lampenda”, the tightly torqued guitars of “Gili Men”, the sinusoidal synthesisers punctuating “Fulani Rock”. Maal “wanted guests to come into these songs but not to take anything away from the fact that I’m African. It had to be sounds that match my voice. When I travel I see spaces, I hear the wind and the ocean. But the journey started from my home town and I always come back home.”
We wander on, past a Bwa mask and some 1960s footage of a priest casting nuts for divination at a Gèlèdé masquerade ceremony. In the Islam exhibit, Maal smiles at a loose-leaf Qu’ran designed to fit into an accompanying saddlebag. “This I know!” Another nostalgic rush is prompted by wooden boards and inkpots used by learners to write out the holy book, with the ink then rinsed off. “Some people will drink the ink or wash with it,” he says. “To cure diseases, or to bring good luck.”
A section on slavery concentrates on the ways in which freed slaves used their personal narratives to campaign for emancipation. “These are people who took up the pen to resist,” says Topp Fargion. Maal is looking at an engraving in the neighbouring vitrine of the writer Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. “He is from my tribe. He is a Fulani.”
In a country dominated by Wolof speakers, Maal has been an enthusiastic ambassador for the Fulani. “Senegal is known as a country by the coast. But my part is more turned inland. Like Mali and Burkina Faso, it’s dry. We’re a nomadic people, we travel a lot, even as far as central Africa.”
The Traveller opens with “Fulani Rock”. “I’m talking about not being afraid to use our languages instead of western languages or Arabic. Our languages are connected with our way of life.” Although polyglot, Maal insists: “It’s not the languages that make me understood but the culture, the dancing, the rituals, the music. I use instruments that belong to all the different tribes: the kora, the ngoni, the tama, the djembe — all west African music.”
The exhibition explores the travels of the diaspora, a theme taken up by “Kalaajo”, from the new album, which harks back to the acoustic blues of Maal’s first album of duets with Mansour Seck. “When you leave your home all their hopes depend on you. It’s heavy on the shoulders of a young person going for adventure.”
Topp Fargion talks about the spread of the Jamaican Gumbé rhythm. “The beat was played on a square drum that looked like a stool, to fool the slave owners who had forbidden music. When they were freed they took the music back to Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
Maal nods. “In Senegal too. The fishermen play it around the coast. They play it on sabar drums. Even Orchestra Baobab have a Gumbé song: they played it at the Royal Festival Hall [in September],” he says.
Baobab were performing at the second Africa Utopia festival, which Maal curated. At its predecessor, he worked with the poet Lemn Sissay, and The Traveller closes with their diptych “War” and “Peace”.
“We started to talk about our different backgrounds. He is from Ethiopia [Sissay was born in Lancashire to an Ethiopian mother] and I’m from Senegal. We started to talk about the condition of the world.” The two songs fit together. “ ‘War’ is very hard, tough, violent, aggressive. ‘Peace’ is more me, using music to calm him down. There’s my voice and his talking, and the kora, a very peaceful instrument.”
We round the corner into an exhibit on Authenticité, the wave of post-independence cultural nationalism, with a cloth portrait of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal and a poet and writer. Maal’s eyes flick to album covers from Guinean bands of the time, Bembeya Jazz and Les Amazones. “I used to have these . . . ” And then he sees a mock recording studio dedicated to Fela Kuti. Back in the section on Christianity, we heard a 1922 recording of Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti singing a hymn. Maal is more interested in his grandson. “Ah, you’ve got to have Fela.” He dips inside to watch film footage of the Nigerian singer and provocateur, which he identifies as his favourite part of the exhibition. “I’m an intellectual and I like the intellectual parts.”
He contemplates his younger self and the distance he has travelled. “I did a lot. I met a lot of people. Inside of me I’m still that Baaba Maal who was born in Podor. I’ve explored the world, but I am still who I was.”
‘The Traveller’ is released by Palm Pictures on January 15. Baaba Maal plays Royal Festival Hall, London, on January 20. ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ is at the British Library until February 16
Photographs: Anna Huix; British Library