Senegalese musician pours real feeling into quest for justice


By Dwight Hobbes
Contributing Writer

It isn’t often you hear of a man advocating for the well-being of women. So, when I read in a press release for Baaba Maal’s “Tales from the Sahel” tour that among the things he would address October 15 at Cedar Cultural Center is the state of affairs for African women, I’m real interested to go check it out.
Turns out, there’s a great deal in which to be interested.


Hailing from Senegal, Baaba Maal, it so happens, is an international figure of considerable renown. With no less than 16 albums recorded, including sessions with pop experimentalist Brian Eno and last year’s hugely successful Television, the singer and guitarist indeed has established a high profile from which to advance his social activism.


And certainly, as has been well documented, Africa is a land where women’s human rights have long been abused. For instance, female genital cutting has been a crime on the books for more than a half-century in many African countries, including Senegal; but in all that time, according to U.S.-based advocacy organization the Center for Reproductive Rights, the law has gone unenforced with not a single case having ever been brought into court.


As well, to this day, in countries like Uganda and Nigeria, women can still be forced into marriage — and not just in remote villages where one might assume some sort of time warp holds sway. This past November, a Nigerian federal high court rejected a case in which a woman sought to nullify her marriage after being coerced by her father to wed a member of the Nigerian Senate. In denying her petition, the court ruled that this was not a human rights issue but a matrimonial matter and, accordingly, under the jurisdiction of a local Shari’a court.


“Men want to keep women down,” Baaba Maal stated during Saturday evening’s conversational segment conducted by journalist and author Chris Salewicz. “But, there is a proverb: ‘No one controls the way that life takes.’ Now is [the] time for women to be at the front lines for many things. They are getting freedom, but they need to have it more and more — to change the situation for women.”


This drew tumultuous applause and cheers from the packed house — which, curiously, was overwhelmingly White. There were no more than a half-dozen Black people among the several hundred in attendance.


Earlier in the week, during sound check for an engagement in Denver, Baaba Maal took a few minutes to talk by telephone about the agenda for his 14-city tour. “We are talking about what Africa is going to be in general. Our point of view. How we see the world and how Africa wants to enter the millennium. What Africa has to offer, from its natural resources to the power of women, the power of culture, and how we need education and technology to be part of all our goals for the future.”


He is less than impressed with President Barack Obama’s outreach to help African meet those goals. “We are proud that someone who comes from our community is at the head of the United States. But, at the same time, we want to see more of him [helping Africa].


“I hope [there is improved outreach by] the next government from the United States. They have a lot of partnership between America and now China and India. I hope it will be more open for Africa. I hope one day it will happen.”


Specifically, Maal wants to see the U.S. involved in an aspect of Africa’s development that he finds crucial, something he stressed in the conversation. “The first thing, the strongest thing for me is…very good education. To come help the young generation to want to be connected to the rest of the world.” And he wants to see Africa, where HIV/AIDS are widespread, “have access to the medication other people have.”


At Cedar Cultural Center, Baaba Maal made it something of a mix-and-match event. Along with casually holding forth on issues and his concerns for social progress, he interspersed a fascinating musical performance, pulling from his extensive repertoire an intriguing set of beautifully written songs skillfully delivered with passion.


His vocal style often starts out at barely a hum, subtly building before he’s done into a powerful, fiery wail in his native tongue. Whether you understand his language or not, he pours such feeling into his singing that it is hard not to be profoundly moved.


As was the audience, hanging on every phrase, wildly applauding each time he finished a song. For the Tales from the Sahel tour, Maal is not accompanied by longstanding percussionist Mamadou Sarr. He is backed on percussion and vocals by Jim Palmer, son of famed performer Robert Palmer. At each stop, Maal also recruits a percussionist from the given locale. For the Twin Cities leg he was joined by Tony Paul, best known as a member of reggae legends The Maroons.


After the event, those who went away with a Television CD had the chance to revisit the evening at home by listening to the music and by reading Baaba Maal’s liner notes:


“Technology is transforming Africa and is one of the continent’s biggest hopes. It is most important that African children have universal access to education — this must be the number-one priority and focus.


Education and technology can bridge the gap between those who are on top of the world and those who for too long have been outsiders looking in. Africa has a lot to offer. Africa is the future.”

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.