Review Summary: The master returns
Baaba Maal has not released an album since 2016. Was 2016 the year in which Pandora wept beside an open jar? All around us, as if at once, dog whistles went off and the intensity of the invisible hum has not dropped off. In many parts of the world, we see life traded for ash, and these ills have culminated in the dour, divisive, and life-sapping pandemic.
If you happen to catch the video for 'Freak out', the second track of this album, it will feel like Maal has come back out of a self-imposed exile (and in many ways he has - Maal had stated he was done with making albums). A convoy of black SUVs scythes through the desert as if answering a call; Maal emerges in sunglasses to the rapture of a group of villagers. Shots of various people from all walks of life show a convergence; Maal's face is painted prominently on a wall overlooking it. In Senegal, Maal is above politics and pettiness - he is a prophet without requiring a prophecy.
I can't accurately tell you what the songs are about, but according to his website, "they are about generational debts and conflicts, rivers, watching people, seeing new generations of Africans make themselves felt, the impact of technology, remembering dreams, the magic of place, the strangeness of time, the feeling of home, the stars above, and the rhythms inside and out". Job done. What I can tell you is this album contains three particularly fearsome cuts. Opener 'Yerimayo Celebration' stumbles into the frame in a deep register and a reedy, spare guitar twang. Maal kicks it up a gear vocally, and the song marches over you with martial, disciplined purpose. You can feel the unstoppable feet on your back, dust in your face. There's a pocket of air, someone helps you to your feet, swishes a brush over you, and then you're part of the procession celebrating the festival of the fishermen.
'Freak out' features electronic outfit The Very Best, bringing the sweet vocal of Esau Mwamwaya and a hard-edge beat; at the points where the song expands, little flashes of rising percussive riffs ascend like boiling thermometers. Maal hovers, raptor-like, over the steadiness of the track in the space where the sun melts into the skyline and surrenders the day to the night. The beat is inscribed with the intaglio of the kora, and the song translates the equal parts power and danger inherent in tech-fuelled communication. In fact, a feature of Being
is how huge the drums sound on the rhythm driven tracks - few artists in Maal's orbit use such forceful, defined percussion.
The change of pace of 'Ndungu Ruumi' evokes all the best West African music has to offer; stateliness, mystery, enormity. Every percussive moment of this album is glorious, like the drought broken and left for dead in soft mud behind riotous, joyous farmers. Subtle electronics poke out from every corner, transporting us thousands of years into the future while we are still shaded by the wild date palm that has always been, but may not always be.
The biggest nod to where we are now is 'Boboyillo', riding a beat that reminds me of a late-night street race, but still anchored somehow by the power of the folk underpinning. Guest vocalist Rougi is allowed to shine, with Maal rumbling beneath her clear, powerful lines. The song is a cauldron, containing a deliberate swirl and unsettling wooziness that mimics the peril that young migrants face.
I remember going on a game drive about 17 years ago, and I will never forget the moment a herd of zebras bolted across the trail in front of the blocky Land Rover I was sitting in. One does not think those bold chess stripes provide camouflage, but you can barely see a zebra in civil twilight. You hear them, and you see the cloud they create, and you see their movement imprinted on where they were. Only once they are running and rolling across the veldt can you concentrate and find the shape of them; in flight they reveal what they truly are. Every muscle, every trembling mane, every line and extension are part of a joyous whole. It was a privilege to see it, and it made my heart sing. This album becomes apparent with the same nobility and reminds me of that precious feeling.