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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Baaba Maal bridges cultural gaps through music

UC Davis world music aficionados have reason to rejoice this spring. On Apr. 8, Senegalese singer Baaba Maal will embark on his first United States tour in four years, making a stop in Davis on Apr. 15. Tickets are on sale for the concert, to be held at 8 p.m. in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall.

Baaba Maal, a sensation in both his native Senegal and around the world, is famous for his unique style that blends the music of his homeland with more contemporary Western styles.

At the concert, Maal and his band will be joined by singer Sabina Sciubba and keyboardist Didi Gutman of New York electronic/pop group Brazilian Girls. The three collaborated on Maal’s latest album, Television, and will perform selections from the album at the show.

“[Maal] is a very important figure in world music,” said Jeremy Ganter, Director of Programming for the Mondavi Center. “He combines his Senegalese heritage with other forms of music like R&B and blues.”

Ganter said that the upcoming concert will be Maal’s third performance in Davis, following a performance in the Mondavi Center’s opening season and during the Summer Music Series.

“We’re excited that he’s presenting new material,” Ganter said. “He’s an electric performer.”

Music professor Sandy Graham is a longtime fan of Maal’s. She agrees that his music is unique and memorable.

“My introduction to Baaba Maal was his 1989 album Djam Leelii (“The Adventurers”), which he recorded with his mentor, Mansour Seck,” Graham said in an e-mail interview. “I remember when I first heard it at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn: Its beauty literally shocked me.”

Graham said that Maal’s voice is powerful even when accompanied by a single instrument.

“His voice has a suppleness and intensity that’s present whether he’s singing loud or soft, slowly or quickly – he’s incredibly expressive,” she said.

Graham said that influences of reggae, percussion and soul make Maal’s music great to dance to as well.

Fellow music professor Henry Spiller believes that Maal’s fusion of traditional African music and more mainstream styles is an effective way to present cultural music to a wider audience.

“His kind of fusion projects, which draw on both the musical language of international popular music and the traditional values of African music, helps to engender a kind of audience engagement with music that goes beyond ‘just listening’,” Spiller said in an e-mail interview. “[It] opens up new worlds of musical meaning to them.”

Spiller said that because Maal is familiar with Western styles of music, he is able to showcase his own traditions within music familiar to American listeners.

“Baaba Maal can translate the values of community-based, ethical music making that are characteristic of African traditions, and make them more accessible to American audiences,” he said.

Graduate student Steven Spinner, whose work focuses on African music, believes that Maal’s native music is not so different from American styles.

“West African music has a close connection to much of American popular music going back a hundred years,” he said.

Spinner said that Maal’s fusion style is “part of a long history of African artists expressing what their experience is, living between tradition and modernity.”

ROBIN MIGDOL can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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