Live African Music: Baaba Maal at Royce Hall

By Don Heckman

It took a while for the party to fully get underway Saturday night during Baaba Maal’s performance at Royce Hall.  UCLA Live Director David Sefton had opened the evening in his typically jocular fashion, suggesting that he fully expected the audience to respond in the appropriate fashion to the irresistible rhythms of Maal and his musicians.  But it wasn’t until the last few numbers that the crowd – urged on by the dynamic percussive pyrotechnics of tama (talking drum) player Massamba Diop – began to fill the aisles.  It was the familiar climactic buildup to the conclusion of Maal’s concerts, in which listeners fill the stage, with the most extroverted (and the most terpsichorean) among them demonstrating their African dance moves.

Maal’s come a long way since the more intimate song-making of his 2001 album, Missing You, and a substantial portion of his program was devoted to the material on last year’s Television CD.  Like Caetano Veloso, who performed at the Greek Theatre last Thursday, Senegal’s Maal   embraced the now-global elements of American rock, funk and pop, while trying to retain the connections with his own roots.  In Maal’s case, the music also revealed the impact that Latin American music – from Cuba and the Caribbean to Brazil and Argentina – has had upon African pop musicians over the past few decades.

Regardless of the stylistic diversity, however, it was the charismatic Maal who was the evening’s driving force.  His voice, with its capacity to move effortlessly from purring calmness to soaring lyricism and leonine shouts, is one of world music’s most mesmerizing sounds.  And he offered it in plentiful fashion, often interacting with individual musicians in his colorful ensemble, frequently engaging in dramatic – sometimes whimsical — encounters with Diop.  Between numbers, many of his remarks emphasized the work he continues to do to alleviate poverty, lack of education and the treatment of women (notably so in his song, “African Woman”).

Other touching moments included  his pensive opening number, “Tindo Quando,” exchanges with long-time musical inspiration, blind singer and griot, Mansour Seck, as well as the occasional reach back into earlier material.  At their best, they recalled the more traditional orientation of Maal’s work, counterbalancing other pieces -– especially the songs from Television – in which the rich, fundamental, multi-layered rhythms of Senegal and West Africa had been replaced by the groove-oriented drive of Afro-pop, funk and rock.  Entertaining as those pop-directed results may have been, it was hard not to feel that something valuable had been set aside in the quest for global togetherness.

Still, when Maal, his musicians and the audience members began the final, on-stage rave-up, such objections were easy to set aside in the high spirited return to the communal sharing of dance and song that is an equally fundamental aspect of African musical culture.

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