In Senegal, Baaba Maal came from humble beginnings. But he has learned and traveled and now speaks and sings of empowerment, enlightenment and peace. He was born in Podor, a town with a population of 6,000, on the banks of the river Senegal that separates the country of the same name from Mauritania. (In 2006, returning to his home town, Baaba Maal established the now annual Blues du Fleuve three-day festival in Podor.) Baaba's family is Hal Pulaar, known in the English speaking world as Fulani. He is not from a family of Griots - the hereditary caste of artists and communicators. His father worked in the fields but was also given the honour and responsibility of using songs to call the worshippers to the mosque. Baaba's mother was a musician who sang and wrote her own songs, educating her son in the musical forms of the area and encouraging the young Baaba to value intelligent and thoughtful lyrics.
At the same time Baaba was listening to Black music coming out of America, people like James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Etta James. Later he caught up with Jamaican musicians such as Toots Hibbert, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
Baaba went to school in St. Louis, the original French colonial capital and, on winning an Art scholarship, on to Senegal's modern capital, Dakar. There he joined Asly Fouta, a group of 70 musicians, and spent his time with the group learning as much as he could about the local musical instruments and how they work. On leaving college he toured West Africa with longtime friend, guitarist and Griot, Mansour Seck, soaking up more knowledge: "It's traditional for young musicians to do that. When you arrive in every village you do a gig. This makes you friendly with all the young people who are in the village. The next day the young people take you to visit the oldest person who knows about the history of the village and the country and about the history of the music." Baaba then lived in Paris for several years, studying at the Conservatoire des Beaux Arts, with ears still wide open. On arriving back in Senegal Baaba formed his band Daande Lenol (Voice of the People).
As his work with the UN DP signifies, Baaba Maal's vision extends beyond music. He often credits his much-loved mother with giving him a broader and more sympathetic view of the world than many of his contemporaries. Baaba is a citizen of the developing world who has carved out a place for himself in the first world. Baaba Maal can speak and sing to and for Africa with unprecedented authority.
As he has made clear, Baaba Maal's mission in West Africa extends beyond his music. He is committed to the concerns of families, young people and the future of the continent, as is reflected in his role as Youth Emissary for the United Nations' Development Programme, about which he says: "It strengthens my determination to work harder to contribute more to improving the living conditions of disadvantaged people of the African continent, especially young people, whose future is seriously threatened by illiteracy, poverty and HIV/AIDS. When I am talking about Africa, it is about how Africa will grow into the new millennium. This is why I really wanted to make music, so people can listen more to the music and the messages I am talking about."
His image of uplifting the African continent has long driven Baaba Maal. To this end, in 2003 he played the Nelson Mandela 46664 Concert in Cape Town in South Africa; and the next year he performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, for Dr Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental campaigner who won that year's Peace Prize. In 2007, he played at the African Union heads of state summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and also performed at the Live Earth Concert in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Back in the UK, Baaba Maal has consistently topped the bill at prestigious events: in 2005, he not only headlined one of the BBC Proms Concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall, but also Glastonbury festival and the Africa Remix festival at London's Royal Festival Hall; in July of that year Baaba led off the Make Poverty History March at the G8 protest in Edinburgh.