The master chameleon of West African pop has done it again. After an 8-year hiatus from studio releases, Baaba Maal returns with a poignant set of songs that bear little or no resemblance to anything else in his vast and varied catalogue. This is not the acoustic intimacy of his unplugged releases. Nor is it the brash crossover of those early pop titles with his band Dande Lenol. Nor is this the extravagant complexity of Maal’s international fusion projects. These eight songs, produced with guitarist and maestro Barry Reynolds, in collaboration with Sabina Sciubba and Didi Gutman of Brazilian Girls, are spare, understated, tastefully electronic and philosophically expansive. They extend his reach as a songwriter, while somewhat soft-pedaling his extraordinary voice. In short they are the work of a mature and confident artist, unwilling to be bound by his past successes, and unafraid to take risks.
The title track is dreamy technopop, meditating on the plusses and minuses of television, that uninvited living room guest who can both corrupt and educate those watching. “Tindo” contemplates the mysteries of language over a brooding vamp laced with elegant percussion, chiming guitar bursts, and fat slide guitar accents from Reynolds. The vocal interplay between Sciubba’s breathy cooing and Maal’s trademark declamatory keening is sweet, and the song builds to a heady climax. “Miracle” builds around a descending guitar riff right out of West African folklore. Its easy swing resolves in a pop song B-section. It’s especially nice when Sciubba sings high harmony to Maal’s baritone.
“Cantaloupe” finds Maal talk-singing in a traditional mode over a breezy bed of acoustic guitar and whistling. “A Song for Women” voices hope for the empowerment of women, but the moody, almost sinister, groove suggests that there’s work to be done. This is one place we hear Maal reaching for those heart-stopping high notes, even if he does so deep with in a droning, percussive miasma of sound. “International”—a song in part about the central place of Africa in the world—delivers rhythmic heft, but not the hard swinging rhythms of Dande Lenol—rather, a percolating, energized techno-groove. Perhaps the catchiest song here, the Latin-tinged “Dakar Moon” is the first song Maal has ever sung almost totally in English, and it is entirely convincing.
This is an album of feathery textures, floating rhythms, and centrally, vocal interplay between Sciubba and Maal. Longtime Baaba Maal fans will need to suspend expectations and give this unusual work time to sink in. Maal is not running away from tradition. He has always been an explorer, from the day he left his village in the Senegalese north and traveled by river boat to learn local music with his lifelong friend Mansour Seck. It’s just that Maal’s subsequent exploring has taken him to Belgrade, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, New York, Rome…. One of Africa’s most powerful singers is now truly a citizen of the world.