Senegalese Legend Baaba Maal On Making Electronic Fulani Rock In His New Album, 'The Traveller'

Baaba Maal talks about working with Johan Hugo (The Very Best) and members of Mumford & Sons on his new album 'The Traveller.'

Baaba Maal in London, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Senegal’s 62-year-old musical icon, Baaba Maal, a man largely known for his delicate acoustic compositions, goes electronic for his new album 'The Traveller.' He teamed up with Johan Hugo, the producer and multi-instrumentalist behind The Very Best, to compose 12 songs that combine Maal’s soaring Fulani vocal melodies with auto-tune and imposing pop beats.

'The Traveller' was recorded between sessions at Baaba Maal’s home in Podor, Senegal and London. Last month, I spoke with the Senegalese guitarist through an unstable Skype connection about this new step in his sound. We talked about his decision to collaborate with Mumford & SonsWinston Marshall and Seye, as well as his desire for the album to not be seen as “just African music.”

In many ways, the songs on The Traveller feel like they belong next to water. How has being born to a family of fishermen influenced your songwriting?

Baaba Maal: It’s a good question, because in these parts of Senegal the most popular music is performed by fishermen. Fishing communities are connected to everyone, and they are natural entertainers—natural travelers. Fishermen see so many people passing by, bringing their culture.

It's common to see musicians who appreciate each other have a rendezvous for three or four days in a village. Every night they will play naturally, not to write something, just to do the job. Music is the job. At the end of the day many songs come out from that.

These songs travel also, from village to village, and are repeated. Some other people add some other elements in the song. The song may come back transformed into something really nice, because it's become the song of everyone, a song written by everyone.

That really comes through in this album and your previous work.

Exactly. It's very West African. Now we have television, we have internet, but before, musicians made themselves known by traveling. When they arrived in a village, the first people they met would say, "Welcome to my house, stay here as long as you want." It's a big community with a lot of sharing.

Where did the initial idea for The Traveller come from?

I met Johan Hugo from The Very Best maybe two years ago during the Africa Express project. At that time I was just trying to see what was going to be my next album after Television. We became friends and exchanged ideas about collaboration.

I said to him I wanted to write some songs, not for an album, but just to write some songs. We started at the studio, and then I invited him and some other musicians like Winston Marshall from Mumford & Sons to play the Blues du Fleuve Festival (Blues of the River Festival) festival here in Senegal. Johan stayed in Senegal after and we decide to write some songs together. It eventually turned into an album.

What were the writing sessions like?

I wrote the lyrics and melody for maybe 70 percent of the album. The rest comes from ideas that Johan gave to me while playing a kind of organ. [The organ] is something very European and very British, but at the same time, it's something I think an African voice can really match on top of.

An album is built on melody. That’s what I’m looking for. I'm looking to write songs that travel from continent to continent, travel from style to style, picking up the soul of the music itself.

Would you like your music viewed as pan-African?

It is just music. Musicians, when they appreciate each other, write things down. They don't think about a continent or about moving themselves to another space. [They just think about] the voice, the singing, “is it still me?” The guitar in The Traveller is very African, and the melodies of the songs are very Senegalese. But at the same time, it is very modern, it's very human, you know. From the soul.

What was the recording process like? I read that you recorded the album in both London and Senegal?

We started it here in Senegal. Like I said, after the festival we had just three days in my house, and wrote some first steps of 4 or 5 songs, and then moved things to London. Then Johan said, "Let's travel.” He came to Senegal to stay for nearly one month with Seye, who plays bass on some of the songs. We wanted to have an African environment, and this is where we bought all of this percussion like the sabar, the talking drum, and the djembes, which are really the sounds of Africa. But Johan twisted them a little bit to make it more universal. You have to listen carefully so you can hear it's really just African sounds originally.

Where in Senegal did you record it exactly?

It's all in my house. I have a studio there. For some of these instruments, you need a very big room, or you do it just outside. For example, if you have 20 pieces of percussion, you go outside with them and put up a lot of microphones. It gives you a new sound. The choir, it's kind of a gospel or Christian choir that you have in “Gilli Men,” was also done the same way.

This is all in Dakar?

Yes, it's a just outside of Dakar in a very calm, and very small, cultural village. I did some recording there with “War.” Also, [2001’s] Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) was 90 percent recorded there and finished in London.

Speaking of Dakar, in songs like “Fulani Rock” you mention that you want to represent your people.

Yeah, “Fulani Rock” is a song that I really, really like because of the kind of guitar and drum machine that it uses but also because of the lyrics. The words in that song talk about how important it is to sing in our traditional African languages. Language is not just communication between people, it’s also a gift that we want to give to the younger generation so that they can feel close to their culture.

If you had a message that you'd like for your audience to receive from the album, what would it be?

The main message in this album, like its title, is to show what you get by traveling. Life is travel. You are born, you come to the world, and you are traveling until the end. You never know what you're going to get. When you travel you see that the world is quite interesting—all the different faces, all the different cultures, all the different food, all the different types of music. But it's all human beings, and it's all connected.

How do you feel Fulani people influenced this album?

This journey comes from the album Television, and is much more of a collaboration than Television. But at the same time, it's for me.

I want people to know that this is not just African music. It's just songs that have been written for people, wherever they are, whoever they are, for them to to close their eyes and listen or dance to them.

The Traveller is out January 15 and available now on iTunes.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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