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The Senegalese singer Baaba Maal divides his time between music and public campaigning: he serves as a youth emissary for the United Nations Development Programme, focusing on women’s rights and Aids. With his band, Dande Lenol (The Voice of the People), he travels into the isolated interior of Senegal and the rest of west Africa. A lot of Aids information, he says, is “in English or French, or spots on the TV – people don’t have TVs. You have to travel into the deep part of Africa.”
Dande Lenol have made cassettes about new irrigation systems and the risks of bilharzia (a parasitic disease caused by swimming in infested waters). “My musicians see this band as a cultural project. Using the opportunity we have by being well known can really help,” Maal says.
A few years ago, holding court backstage from a vinyl-covered armchair in a hall in Portsmouth, Maal told me that his intention was to “put an African village on stage”. On this current tour he does just that.
At the Anvil, the concert starts with an empty stage and an abrupt eruption of percussion. The drummers walk on playing, followed by the rest of Dande Lenol and then Maal himself, in shiny checkerboard Peul robes. The opening numbers, “Mbolo” and “Mbaye”, have the high-energy whipcrack smartness of Senegalese dance music, with chattering keyboards and drums ricocheting, poised to accelerate whenever the momentum shows any sign of flagging.
Three energetic dancers (two women and a man) shimmy and high-jump, then cartwheel and somersault across the stage. Maal commands the crowd imperiously with a single raised arm.
“Bouki” has a fast ska rhythm, interrupted when the Tama drummer brings his instrument out to the front and belabours it until shards of his stick fly high into the air. Then, like a one-man Russian doll, he strips off pair after pair of trousers revealing ever shorter shorts.
The atmosphere now changes entirely, to the more thoughtful, acoustic side of Maal’s repertoire, harking back to his 1980s duets with the blind griot Mansour Seck (present tonight as a singer). “After dinner,” explains Maal, as most of the band leave the stage, “when it’s less hot, we sit down and have something to talk about and play sweet songs.” He sings “Baayo”, one of his oldest compositions. “While I was in France”, he sings, “learning more about art and life, a terrible phone call summoned me home. My mother was already dead and buried. Orphan, orphan, orphan…”
Maal plays acoustic blues guitar, his line doubled by Mamoudou Gaye, in Senegal’s softer, more intricate version of the harsher neighbouring desert blues of Mali. Here, the song becomes a lament for all the orphans of Africa, beset by “diseases, catastrophes, Aids”.
“Koni”, an old folk song about a young girl fleeing an arranged marriage, follows. The blues are heavier in this refrain: Seck and a second backing vocalist, the exuberant Mami Kanoute, join forces and rise high with Maal on the chorus.
With another furious percussion intro, the full band are back in Technicolor for “African Woman”, which Maal sang at the Nobel peace prize ceremony for Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist. The women dancers mime winnowing with woven baskets and other agricultural tasks; Maal and the male dancer paddle an invisible dugout with red, green and yellow paddles.
“Gorel” is sonically messy, refusing to cohere into a groove until Massamba Diop seizes his talking drum and leaps onto a vacant front row seat, cheerleading the crowd. The dancers perform improbable feats with pestle and mortar; above it all, as ever, Maal’s voice contains more than a hint of a call to prayer.
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