The Songs of West Africa : How Baaba Maal’s Music Reclaims Sahelian Identity

When Baaba Maal walked onstage wearing a stunning sky-blue boubou—a classic West African garment found among the works assembled in Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara—he signaled his place in a historic lineage. Maal is at once inspired by and celebrating a vocation of musical storytelling established by Sahelian bards known as griots, or jeliw. Critically acclaimed on a global stage, this performer known for his contemporary take on traditional West African song played an acoustic concert at The Met to accompany the Museum’s historical exhibition.
For a musician who regularly performs in stadiums on world tours, The Met’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium offered an intimate theater. « I appreciate the fact that people are really close to me, like we do it in Senegal or Mauritania, » Maal said onstage. « When we finish dinner, we get together in the middle of the village and make music. This is how we learn our relationships to the families all along the River Senegal, about the great kings, about our responsibility in society—everything we learn, we get from music in our culture. » For the next hour, Maal played acoustic guitar and sang a repertory of songs from the modern-day countries of the Sahel including Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, and Guinea. He was accompanied by Cheikh Ndiaye on ngoni. Maal composed the evening’s first song, « Giledam (My Friend), » while sitting on the banks of the Senegal River, looking across to Mauritania.

Maal performs his songs « Kalaajo » and « Koni » in this excerpt from The Met’s concert.
Maal was born in 1953, seven years before Senegal’s independence, in Podor, a small town on the south bank of the Senegal River. Podor is a fishing community populated by the Fulani, who live on both banks. Following the region’s independence from France in the mid-twentieth century, the river divided the newly established states of Senegal and Mauritania. Maal was not born into the griot caste, though his father, a farmer, did sing calls for prayer at the family’s mosque. While Maal was expected to become a farmer or fisherman or doctor or lawyer, he befriended Mansour Seck, the son of a local griot, who led him to embrace music. He moved to the capital, Dakar, to pursue his studies and then left on a journey with Seck to travel the Senegal River. They set out to absorb and survey firsthand the musical traditions of the western Sahel.
« What fed me when I was young was all these stories told from the Sahel, » Maal told me during his visit to The Met. « Still now, they feed my music. » Maal and Seck began recording together after returning to Dakar in the 1980s. In the West, Maal is known for his collaborations with U2, Brian Eno, and Mumford and Sons. He sang on the Grammy-winning soundtrack for 2018’s Black Panther, scored by Ludwig Göransson and produced by Kendrick Lamar. Maal’s music combines Sahelian lyrics and storytelling traditions with music from the diaspora, including Caribbean music and jazz. Despite his fame in French- and English-speaking countries, he sings almost entirely in Pulaar, the Fulani language. It may be fair to say that most people who’ve heard Pulaar have heard it sung by Maal.
« The Stories of Our Identity »
When The Met conceived a concert to accompany Sahel, Maal was recommended by Mamadou Diouf, the chair of Columbia University’s Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Department and a member of the exhibition’s advisory committee. « This exhibition shows that the Sahel is a world of diversity, and I think what Maal is trying to do is accept the weight and power of pluralism, » Diouf told me. Two days after the concert, we toured the Museum with Maal and a small group of historians led by Alisa LaGamma, the chair of The Met’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and curator of the exhibition. As we walked through the installation, Maal was repeatedly reminded of his childhood and travels.

« Everything seems to talk to you, » Maal said. « These are active objects. » In a gallery about the role of epic poetry in the Sahel, we listened to recordings of griots performing the tale of Sunjata. Maal drew a distinction between the ritualistic qualities of several instruments on display. « The spirit of the kora and the ngoni are different from the talking drum and the balafon, or the sabar and the djembe, » he said. « The kora and ngoni are closer to human beings, because they are made from things that had life. The talking drum, the balafon, and the sabar are made from wood, and when you listen to them your mind goes out into the forest. »
Maal’s music honors these traditions. « When you make music and write songs, you have to know about the messages. From the messages, you know what the instruments are and how to put them together underneath the lyrics. »
Instruments with different ceremonial roles are traditionally not played together, he added. Nor should one kind of instrument be used to play another kind of music. « One time I went to see Toumani Diabaté when he was young, and his father was there, » Maal said. « His father called me and said, ‘Ask your friend not to spoil the kora.’ People of that generation thought the kora should be pure, but Toumani was playing some quarters in Cuban music. I understood that Toumani was part of a new generation. »
Part of what Maal and the musicians of his generation have accomplished is establishing a way to weave these different instruments together, bringing the region’s multiplicity of traditions and histories to new audiences. Through his travels and his deep study of the region’s music, he interprets living traditions and expands upon them. In a Sahel divided by borders that seem arbitrary and impractical, Maal’s music keeps alive a transnational identity in danger of being lost. As Diouf put it, « He carries the stories of our identity. »

We stopped before an extraordinary gold pectoral from twelfth- or thirteenth-century Senegal, excavated not far from Podor. The intricately worked medieval artifact is one of Senegal’s national treasures, and it’s rarely on view. But Maal recognized it; his grandmother had similar jewelry in the same reddish-yellow color. Gold figures importantly in the Sahelian past and is central to more than one gallery in the exhibition. The empire of ancient Ghana (ca. 300–1200) became a global power through its control of the gold trade, and supplied European and Arab goldsmiths in the Middle Ages. In one song, « Ndakarou, » Maal tells the story of the transatlantic trade centered in modern-day Senegal. « Dakar is the capital of hospitality, » he sings in Pulaar. « It is the capital of the hopeful. »
Tales of the Sahel
Maal brought Sahelian music to a global stage and has spent decades amplifying the region’s musical traditions. In 2011, he began a project called « Tales of the Sahel, » which he said was a way to share « what the Sahel means for people who live down there, and what the Sahel gave to the continent of Africa. » On that tour, Maal sang songs between short discussions on Sahelian identity, much as he did at The Met.

According to professor Diouf, the Sahel has historically organized around « clusters » of different communities that shared identities, languages, and trades. « The idea of clustering, of forming a region as an environmental mosaic, shaped the nature of these communities. They cooperated without a hierarchical, centralized power, » said Diouf. « This is not the idea of a nation that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, with one culture and one language. » The result was an incredibly diverse region, which thrived on cultural exchange and trade. Even over the course of various empires, groups retained their political and economic autonomy and power.
The Sahel was structured this way for hundreds of years until the arrival of the French in the nineteenth century. Under colonial rule, clusters were dismantled as France prioritized agriculture for export. Monoculture wreaked havoc on the environment and contributed to the sub-Saharan region’s present desertification. Nomadic cattle herders, for example, were forced south into Senegal and regions they’d never inhabited in search of lush land.

Diouf notes that following French withdrawal in the 1960s, the frontiers established between newly defined nation-states crippled the region’s diversity by both dividing clusters and isolating them from each other. Europeans had broken a system they’d poorly understood, and these postcolonial borders are a continual cause of strife and conflict among populations who had little say in how they were drawn. Yet they were, however, enshrined in 1964 when African heads of state agreed to « respect the borders existing on their achievement of national independence. »
« The result is what we are living today, » Diouf said of the 1964 accord. « The economic logic first became the logic of colonial development, and remains today the logic of postcolonial development. Today the only representation we have of the Sahel is this region of multiple holy wars, of smugglers or Islamists, and of tension between different ethnic groups. Maal is saying that the identity of this region is different; he’s bringing forward a past for a new future—a future which is different from what we inherited from the colonial and the postcolonial periods. »
As the region has been divided up, a shared Sahelian identity has fractured along national lines. Maal said that the young generation of West Africans who have grown up after colonization is less conscious of the shared history of the region. He sees music as one way to keep the traditions of the Sahel alive—and exhibitions like The Met’s Sahel another. « When I was told there would be an exhibition at The Met, I knew in a museum people would really dig into the history, » he told me. « If you don’t know your story, you don’t know all the possibilities of it. »