The blending of traditional African musical elements with the forms and procedures of Western pop can be tricky. But don’t tell Baaba Maal, who not only manages to make the combination work but does it with utterly irresistible spirit and enthusiasm.
At the Veterans Wadsworth Theatre on Friday, Maal and his 12 players presented a nonstop two-hour program of music and dance that had a capacity crowd on its feet and dancing for a good part of the show. Only the vigorous efforts of the Wadsworth staff kept the crowd from converting the auditorium into one mass dance hall.
Maal has expressed a belief that “spirituality is more important than politics and all material things,” adding that “when you create a work, you must do it not just for yourself but for every human person.” That belief was manifest in the gripping sound of his voice, the surging rhythmic exhilaration of his songs and the physical exhilaration of the leaps and turns of his dancer-percussionists.
Equally important, Maal’s Senegalese heritage was present in everything he performed. Onstage throughout was his longtime friend Mansour Seck, a griot (or cultural historian) who played guitar, sang, danced and generally energized the music. There were frequent, sometimes whimsical interchanges with the talking drum playing of Massamba Diop. Most of the pieces were energized by the rich, flowing textures of Kauding Cissoko’s kora (an instrument that combines the qualities of harp and guitar).
But there were more familiar elements present too. The songs, many from the Grammy-nominated “Firin’ in Fouta” album, often surged with underlying funk elements (frequently triggered by a two-man saxophone team) and a surging feeling of reggae in Maal’s yela rhythm pieces.
It would be hard to imagine a more convincing synthesis of musical styles. Maal clearly has placed himself in the forefront of world music as a truly global expression of human emotion.