The Senegalese global superstar emphasizes the importance of community activism.
“Don’t mention my name,” Baaba Maal remembered telling a Senegalese deejay the first time he performed live on radio. More than four decades before he recorded The Black Panther soundtrack, Baaba Maal had second thoughts about the chance that most musicians consider a big break.
“I didn’t want my father to know I wasn’t studying at the university. “Since I was young, maybe 10 years old, people turned their heads when I sang,” Maal told me as we sat down to talk at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, where he spent a week doing an artistic residency.
“In our town [Podor, Senegal], people would gather at the centre every night, build a fire, and perform music, and before the end of the evening, they’d always say, ‘Baaba, you have to sing’.” But his family had other ideas. “My father wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, something respectable for him. I was a very good student but I was hiding my wish to be a musician,” Maal recalled. That’s when he was invited to a Senegalese radio station, and decided to perform a song called Taara.
You can probably guess what happened next when he returned home that night. “I was alone with my dad and that song came on the radio,” Maal recollected. “There was one entire minute of silence before he responded and asked me, ‘Is that you?’ After 30 seconds of silence, I answered, ‘Yes, that’s me’.”
Baaba Maal then recounted the conversation word for word he had that night with his father, who at that time worked as a muezzin, performing the traditional Muslim call to prayer: “If you sing, and people can learn something, you can inspire their lives. Then, I’m with you. If you just want to sing to be famous and meet girls, then I’m not with you.”
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