A decade ago, Baaba Maal was holding court backstage in an English provincial town, enthroned on a vinyl armchair so battered that it looked like a homage to Mad Max. The Senegalese singer was chafing at the mundane realities of touring in the west and dreaming of a different type of event.
“African music has its own market, its own realities,” he said. “There, music is a social event, not a contractual one. You play and people give you cattle, give you horses, give you land. I want to put an African village on stage.”
Now he has his wish. For the length of July at London’s Southbank Centre, Maal is curating Africa Utopia, a rolling mix of music, art, dance, film and discussion. The pillars are concerts by Angélique Kidjo, by Oumou Sangaré and Béla Fleck, and by Taj Mahal (topped off with an all-star finale with Maal himself, celebrating the music of Mory Kanté). All of them are roughly of Maal’s generation, but younger artists are present too, from the Vocal Ensemble of Africa to the kora player Sura Susso performing with the violinist Max Baillie.
In between, there will be more unconventional events. Lemn Sissay, along with other writers, will be accompanied by Maal and his band; the play Robben Island Bible remembers the influence of Shakespeare on the imprisoned ANC leaders. Sci-Fi Africa will look at how new futures are imagined. There will be Xhosa dance and Rwandan hip hop. Inua Ellams will produce immersive theatre. Literature also balances elders with young pretenders, including Nuruddin Farah, Noo Saro-Wiwa and Chika Unigwe.
In a rare recent patch of brilliant sunshine, Maal paid a visit to the Southbank, still scouting out venues. The artists group Pirate Technics had just installed a massive baobab tree – traditionally in Africa the centre for community gatherings – made from stacked rings of fabric, growing out of a corner of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Maal, in a pleated Issey Miyake jacket, gazed on it with delight. “I’m trying to think what we can have here. Every time I come I’m inspired by new places.”
Maal’s village is intended as a resonant metaphor; he is not blind to the downsides of actual rural life.
“It’s a good village, where people come together, hear from the elders [who include Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka], where information can spread. But the technology is really important to include everyone. That’s why we have young delegates: they have access to the internet so they connect to young people around the world.
Not so long ago, the notion of an African Utopia, let alone Africa-as-Utopia, would indeed have seemed Utopian, if not satirical. But while the west has turned its attention to its financial crisis, Africa has been quietly moving forward. Child mortality rates are plummeting – in Maal’s own Senegal, for example, by nearly 10 per cent a year. And GDPs have been rising, despite the global recession: Senegal’s 3.8 per cent rate would be impressive for any OECD country, but is half that of Rwanda.
In part, the growth is fuelled by high commodity prices and the Chinese scramble for Africa. But more importantly, Africa’s renaissance is built on cessation of wars and improved governance.
Since Thomas More, all Utopias have been advertisements for or warnings of a future that has yet to come about. The Africa Maal is asserting into existence is one where this new-found economic confidence is mirrored in culture. “What am I particularly excited about?” asks Maal incredulously. “When I look at the map of Africa, everything is exciting. Flying over the continent, you can look down and find great things everywhere.”
Maal’s optimism is based on two groups: women and young people. He points to the role of women in protest movements from Senegal to the Arab spring, and the part they play in innovations in village life in the Sahel, an area where, funded by Oxfam, he proselytises for development.
The Arab uprising has its echoes in sub-Saharan Africa as well. “Young people in Africa today are very different: they have the internet, they have TV news, they travel – they have a different point of view.”
Recent elections in Senegal saw a reasonably peaceful transfer of power. “At Blues On The River [a rural music festival run by Maal] I said to everyone, ‘We have a good name for being in the frontline of democracy, in music, in the economy we’re doing our best. We mustn’t lose that.’ [Political] parties, organisers – they should know how to protect that legacy.”
He was distressed by the coup in neighbouring Mali. “Mali is the heart of the ancient [Manding] empire that inspired the west African countries. To see it burning is not something we should be proud of. They have the ability to fix it, and they should – not just for themselves.”
In the spirit of Africa Utopia, he insists that the continent “still has the ability to remember what’s good about the past. We use culture to come together. We use culture to teach people who they are. We use culture to build a better future.”
One example is Catalyst Rwanda, which runs arts projects with street children. (While the country’s GDP is impressive, there are countless orphans, originally a legacy of the genocide, now because of drugs and HIV.) Offered the chance to work with artists, the residents of a Kigali boys’ home opted for hip-hop dance; now two of them will appear at the Southbank, along with their mentor, London B Boy Pervez.
If Africa Utopia is to accomplish all that Maal has in mind for it, it cannot be a one-off. Will there be another? “I wish. Maybe next year. Maybe every year. There are so many great and talented people in Africa you want to invite. And new people will emerge who represent where the continent is heading.”
An inevitable question is why, given all the assertions about an African renaissance and even an African century, this first Africa Utopia has to be held in Europe. This is an irony of which Maal is conscious. Although he recognises London’s “coming together of cultures”, he also insists that future iterations should belong in Africa.
“A lot of the time people meet and do great things, it’s outside the continent. People at home don’t see what we do that makes us famous. So it could be Johannesburg, Dakar, Kinshasa – all great capitals, places where music has been at the front. We should make this travel round the world. It’s like this garden” – he gestures at Queen Elizabeth Hall’s rooftop garden – “it starts as an experiment, and develops into an institution.”
Africa Utopia, July 3-28 www.southbankcentre.co.uk