Baaba Maal brings his global sound to UCLA’s Royce Hall
Musical inspiration can strike Baaba Maal in any place, at any time.
It might happen on the Paris Metro, where he sometimes hears echoes of African drum beats in the rumbling of the train cars. Or he could be in his native environs, on the banks of the Senegal River, listening for hidden melodies in the sound of the wind and the rain.
“Just silently in my head I sing songs, on the top of rhythm,” said the 56-year-old vocalist-guitarist.
For much of his adult life, Maal, who’ll perform Saturday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, has been a man in motion. Years ago, he spurned his parents’ hopes of him becoming a doctor or lawyer by leaving Senegal to study music in France. There, he began formulating a polyglot, polyrhythmic alloy of traditional African and Western sounds, later folding in Caribbean, Latin American and other textures.
Since his recording career took off in the 1980s, he has traveled the world, musically as well as physically, collaborating with other sonic nomads ( Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno) and lending his work to the soundtrack of Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down.”
“There is always one moment in your life, long time ago, that makes you dream a beautiful dream to be a musician and travel the world,” he said. “And to fight to get back that moment in your life, I think, is a very beautiful thing.”
His latest album, last year’s “Television,” continues Maal’s creative peregrinations. One track, “International,” fittingly begins with a female voice reciting a list of cities — “Belgrade, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, New York, Dakar” — in the cool, slightly robotic tone of an airport terminal announcer.
But there’s nothing detached or generically globalized about Maal’s artistry. He insists on keeping his stylistic options as open as his passport, moving nimbly between traditional African acoustic instrumentation and electronic arrangements, as well as among French, English and the Fula language of Western Africa. Wherever he happens to land, he never gives the impression that he’s merely passing through.
That tendency is alive and well with “Television,” for which Maal and his bandmates teamed up with vocalist Sabina Sciubba and keyboardist Didi Gutman of Brazilian Girls, the frisky New York City-based alt-electronica-dance band. It’s a dramatic change from, say, “Missing You (Mi Yeewnii),” his acoustic, resolutely rootsy 2001 release.
“I want them to discover something they did not expect me to do, because I don’t want people to put me in just one place and to say, ‘This is how we want Baaba Maal to be always,’” he said.
Linking up with Brazilian Girls to make “Television” was fortuitous, Maal said. A friend had recommended the band as a collaborator. Upon hearing their music, Maal recognized a kindred spirit in Sciubba, the group’s well-traveled, multi-lingual, Italian-German lead singer.
If Maal has built a career out of exploring the interface and tension between African and Western music, “Television” gently observes that, for better or worse, the line between those forms is blurrier than ever. The record’s title refers to the sudden ubiquity of television sets throughout many African countries where people previously couldn’t afford them. Maal has compared television’s impact on the continent with that of an uninvited guest who suddenly pops into your living room.
“It has to be organized, because you have to save something,” he said. “We have to save the beauty, we have to save the diversity, we have to save the creativity of African culture, which is something that’s really, really strong. I think sometimes because of technology we can lose that. I know it’s dangerous sometimes, but we have to know what to keep and what to lose.”