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Baaba Maal at KRCW/Annenberg's "Sound In Focus" 7/16/16. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13)


To paraphrase Blurred Culture’s music editor  photo editor Derrick Lee: “With all the chaos in the world, there’s something incredibly life affirming about a musician like Baaba Maal.” How true.

A pro jock. A presence. A purveyor of beats, rhythms, and lyrics that transcend linguistic boundaries. He takes the cliche and painfully reductive label of “world music” and flips it around to offer a brand of music that so many artists can only aspire to achieve: music for the world. When Baaba Maal takes the stage, he does so to pay homage to his native Senegal – he’s very self-conscious and open about that. There’s a distinct nationalistic and cultural pride to his performance. But like any brilliant folk musician, he infuses his music with a creativity and emotional quotient that takes the genre out of the specificity of its origins and into a more universal realm. The same way you could listen to Victor Jarra or Mercedes Sosa and feel the narrative, you get that from Baaba Maal. The story becomes onomatopaeic.

From before Baaba Maal even steps on stage, it’s fun just to hang out and watch his crew set up. The multiple percussion kits are a harbinger of good things to come. As the sun shifted behind the Century City office buildings, the plaza at the Annenberg Photo Space starts to cool. The happy sweaty kids that had jumped up onstage to dance their balls off with opening band Brazilian Girls are still at the front, catching their breath, ready to keep the party going. But the crowd shifts a little.

Into the nooks and crannies between the young blood KCRW listeners step the members of a more seasoned generation of public radio fans. They’ve been hanging back during the Classixx and Brazilian Girls sets, doing the late afternoon picnic and beer garden thing. But now it’s time for the Baaba Maal aficionados and african ex-pats to step up to the front. Lots of dashiki vibes. Lots of stoke. And dude … How freaking cool are dashikis and kaftans? Basically muumuus for dudes. So comfy. So classy. When I feel comfortable enough to rock a kaftan without feeling like “that guy”, I’ll know I’ve reached the upper echelons of giving no fucks. In the meantime, I leave it to Baaba Maal and his peeps. Because this isn’t amateur hour. Baaba Maal at 62 years young is a living legend. When he steps onstage in his senegalese kaftan, he looks like a priest or a prince or both. Something simultaneously regal and spiritual about the man. And there is something very ceremonious about the opening of his set. He sits on a chair in the middle of the stage, set apart from the other musicians who form an arc of sound and support behind him.

With acoustic guitar on his knee, his voice wails and soars above the crowd. I don’t know what the hell he’s saying. But I feel the possibilities: pain, loss, sadness, nostalgia. It’s all there to varying degrees. It begs you to consider the title of his most recent album: Traveller. Such a loaded word. You think of travel as a choice. An adventure. A privilege. But in the shadow of the Annenberg Space For Photography with its photo exhibit on global refugees, you acknowledge that travel in its absolute sense can just as easily be –and often is– a forced and brutal experience.

But the human story is one of resilience and where there is pain there is so often also joy. The way I hear Baaba Maal’s music, the joy is always there. It’s the baseline and foundation for our existence. But we have to peel away the pain and sadness that cover it over. It’s almost like pain creates the conditions for joy to emerge. As the tone shifts to a more celebratory party vibe, Baaba ditches the chair and checks in with the crowd to make sure we’re keeping up. “HOW DO YOU FEEL NOW?” he asks. Good. We feel damn good.

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