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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.

Culture
Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

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(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.


This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:





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