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NAIROBI, Kenya — Baaba Maal walks onstage in patent leather shoes, skinny black trousers, a black shirt and a silk-white tuxedo embroidered with black flowers that wind up his arms and across his chest. Dreadlocks skim his collar and frame his smiling face.
It is a change from the bright flowing West African robes he more often wears when performing, and a change from the cropped hair and severe expression on the cover of his 2001 album "Missing You" (Mi Yeewnii).
But the audience is not here for Maal’s striking outfits but his startling voice, accompanied on this night only by his guitar and a traditional drummer. When Baaba Maal sings everything seems to stop. His voice soars, slicing through the soundscape. It’s music to feel more than to hear.
“When you close your eyes you are the only person in the room,” said Caroline Ford, regional director for Africa at the BBC World Service Trust, the charitable arm of the global broadcaster which organized the Nairobi concert.
Born in 1953 in Podor, a village in rural northern Senegal, Maal has been dubbed the “voice of Africa” but tradition decreed that he should not have been a musician at all.
As a child Maal used to sing and he knew his voice was extraordinary because, he told GlobalPost, the older people in the village would always listen to him above the others youngsters, but in keeping with the traditional caste system Maal was destined to fish the Senega River like his father.
“You are a fisherman, you are not allowed to sing,” his grandmother used to tell him.
Maal had different ideas. He and his friend Mansour Seck, a blind man from the griot caste of singers, both wanted to break free from tradition.
“He wanted to get far away from the caste system and was looking for someone to take his hand, and I was looking for someone to introduce me into the family of griots,” Maal said in an interview. “Mansoor Sek was the key that opened that door to me. So I grabbed him and said, ‘You are going to become my brother forever.’” Decades on the two still perform together regularly.
Maal has a punishing tour schedule that takes him from Nairobi to the Global Carnival in Australia, where he will appear alongside Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke. This spring he toured the United States for a month and returned to play Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival in June.
Outside the world of performances Maal has opened a hotel and established an annual music and arts festival called Les Blues du Fleuve (Blues of the River) in his home village to attract tourists. He has also worked as a vocal campaigner for development, women’s rights, children’s education, sexual health and the environment, all issues he confronts daily in Africa.
“Everyone talks about Africa’s problems, which of course we have like anyone else, but at the same time it’s a great continent, a place with rare energy,” he said.
Breaking the fetters of caste may have enabled Maal to make his career, but he warns of a negative side to the erosion of tradition in modern Africa.
“There is positive and negative in everything, you can see it even in the music that comes out of the caste system. The songs of the fishermen are totally different to the music of the griots, are totally different to the rhythms of the nomadic people. If you wipe out everything you lose everything,” he said.
Maal has fused the traditional and the modern and today his sets mix pared-down acoustic African folk, desert blues, reggae and electronica, all overlaid with his extraordinary vocals. His most recent album ‘Television," released last year, was recorded with Brazilian Girls, a hip New York-based dance trio.
“What we did was to keep all the traditional elements of the music and its real meaning, but we adjust it to our time and our reality,” he said.
To Maal the music’s real meaning is in its listeners.
“I didn’t start music to make money or get famous but because of the role that music plays in the heart of a human being. This is the true meaning of music,” he said, “the sharing with other human beings.”