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Africa Confidential, April 2005

Baaba Maal: A Voice for Africa
The Africa Confidential Interview

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Senegalese master musician Baaba Maal's compositions range from the purest traditional sounds to innovative fusion. An artist with a social conscience, Baaba Maal is a remarkable voice for Africa; he represents the United Nations Development Program as a UNDP Youth Emissary and is a spokesman on the issue of HIV/Aids in Africa; and for over 15 years he has been using his music to express his concerns and empower his people.  Africa Confidential caught up with Baaba Maal shortly before his appearance at Glastonbury in June 2005.

Africa Confidential: What are you going to speak about in your performance at Glastonbury?

Baaba Maal: I will be speaking about culture and music. As a musician coming from the arts environment in Africa, I will be speaking about culture in Africa as I know it, from when I was born and how I learnt from my parents the meaning of culture. I want to talk about its importance in the continent and outside the continent. Culture is a way of helping people understand the continent and what the reality is: women, young people, the governments, how it used to be and what it is now, and what needs to be done in the future. Because action is needed now. Culture can show people who don't believe anything can be done for Africa what can be done. And this I am sure of because I live there and I know the energy of the people. Culture can help use this energy and share it. And that is something common to the whole continent.

AC: You famously spoke at the British Museum in February 2005. Is one of the reasons you speak about Africa in the UK because you feel there should be more Africans speaking about the continent in the West?

BM: I'm sure that there should be more Africans speaking; that's why I do it. Not only in the West but also in Africa itself. Musicians and other celebrities can become symbols, especially for young people. We cannot just play football for them or go on stage for them - that's important - but we also need to come to them. For example, I go to the schools in Senegal and we get young people talking about the problems of Africa and help them understand that it is not just the problem of the government or the problem of the artist or the businessman but the problem of everyone. Especially now with HIV/AIDS and how it is destroying the hope of Africa which is the young people. Both boys and girls. To make them understand and say 'Hey man - or sister - you can do something!' Poverty is where many of these problems come from and you need education to overcome this. Here you can turn on the TV and see these problems for yourself, but in Africa many young people do not even have that. They just follow. So we need to make everyone understand that they can do something about HIV/AIDS. Little by little we can progress, but it has to have help from people who the young people see as symbols or role-models.

AC: When the Commission for Africa recently concluded its talks the two salient issues were trade and aid. What must be done in the West with regard to trade in order to help Africa?

BM: Well, let me start first on Africa. One of the positions that the African leaders must take is to be one in their way of dealing with the rest of the world. They have to emphasise their same interests and to be sincere. It is about the unity of Africa, like the United States of America, when we are buying or selling and what we have together. It is about the resources of Africa and how we can make sure that they are shared and that their benefits come back to the continent. It is very dangerous to let everybody go his own way because then you end up with nothing to eat. This is why Africa is very weak. The West should understand that it is in their interest that Africa has strong institutions. It is something that is actually easy to do, but the process must start in Africa.

AC: Do you think that, in all honesty, the West is interested in helping Africa?

BM: Maybe some parts of the West don't understand the importance of helping Africa. But it does have its own importance. Because it is part of this big market, of this big community of exchange in the world so you have to be interested. If you are not interested in the governments or people or even the culture then you are going to be interested in the resources that are there. And everyone knows that there are a lot of resources in Africa and every country wishes it had these resources... If they're not interested then they'll miss that.

AC: Has aid created a culture a culture of dependency in Africa?

BM: I don't think so. Maybe in the cases of a few individuals who receive it but generally no. We are at the point where we have to do something ourselves. If you don't live there you can't understand how it is. The point is to act and Africans are forced to act by their circumstances and something needs to be done now before we can look back and ask ourselves why and how we got here. The whole world is forced to act. For example on HIV/AIDS the world is forced to act on Africa. The whole world is connected. You can take a plane and go to Central Africa, or the US or Japan or go to university in the West. You can't stop people doing that and as long as that's the case there will always be contact with people and this contact you can't control.

AC: Senegal has been very effective in fighting AIDS. Why was it successful? Are the lessons applicable to other countries in Africa?

BM: Some of the tactics that the government has used have been successful but really it was the whole country that wanted to say 'No!', who wanted to be alive and wanted to be an example and we did well.

AC: But why has Senegal done well in comparison to southern African countries?

BM: It's about culture, not religion. It is the specificity of Senegal because people there are very open. Open to information and ideas. It's like here in the UK with music. This country is open to Cuban music, to reggae and when anything comes people say 'Oh, I want to know more,' but in some countries it's not like that. The plan we have in Senegal you can apply to some other countries in Africa. But in others it's not the same reality, it's not the same way of living life. Although we are interconnected in Africa at the same time there is much diversity.

AC: How do you see the role of Western celebrities, in particular Bob Geldof and Bono, in helping Africa?

BM: Well it's not just them, but also Tony Blair and others. They have to be very sincere about what they are doing and not just treat it like a facial. Or just something that happens for this year, you know 'Africa, Africa, Africa...' for one year. They must be concerned about the life of every African who does not have the opportunities to make life better. To be conscious of what life as an African is like. It is easy to change lives. Take a small village in Senegal. The young people don't have a chance to go to schools, play sports or music. What are they to do? From the beginning to the end of the year every day it is the same life. And work in the fields is hard. Sometimes it doesn't even rain. What are they to do? They might have sex, without protection, because they have no information to protect themselves. But it is easy to help them. It is easy to put up a small house with the internet where they can get information. Of course it would be hard at first to learn how to use it but eventually they'll understand. You need to put something there that they don't do every day so that they don't lead this boring life. Some people in Africa do not have many opportunities but they share the same beliefs. More Africans should be involved. Recently I did a concert in South Africa and it was great but more Africans should have been involved. So Bono etc, they can do something for one or two or ten years in the West, but they need Africans there on the continent too. For many years people have sent money to Africa but there is no relay between the peoples. The money just goes to the government and the politicians because the people are not involved.

AC: In what ways should the West help, if it can?

BM: They should go to places where people want to do something and with the people who are already involved on the continent. Do it together with them. Aid should go directly to the people who need it. It should be managed by them. That is the most important thing.

AC: What did you think of Gordon Brown's African trip?

BM: It is always positive to come and see people who are suffering and talk to them so that they can understand the situation. However, at the same time, many times this has happened in Africa and all the talking is done between politicians or intellectuals and 90 per cent of the population don't have a chance to speak. In two of the countries that he visited [Mozambique and Tanzania] most of the people don't speak English, they don't have a TV or communication and so they didn't even know he was there.

AC: What role does music have in the process of development?

BM: I'm going to give you just one example. I come from the north of Senegal and grew up by a river where people lived in the traditional way. The river was their livelihood. Recently, a dam was built to catch the water and provide electricity. That means that a new way of agriculture was introduced and people had to change from their old ways. This is one way in which music can help change because people are open to music. In Africa the most important thing is what the singer is saying. Music can talk about all these issues. Last year I did four or five songs talking about living by the river now and its changing conditions. New things are happening that some people find difficult to live with, like how to deal with new sicknesses in the river [associated with the dam]. Music is far more effective than an official coming and explaining in English or French. Music is more accepted. Without music it might have taken ten years for people to have accepted and understood this change; with music it only takes one or two years. Music, unlike in the West, is not just entertainment in Africa.

AC: Considering there have been both many elections and sustained economic growth in Africa recently, do you think that the continent is finally turning the corner?

BM: I'm sure it is. One or two countries are starting to do well democratically and things are starting to change. It may not be the leaders who want it. But the people and especially the young people from corner to corner; no one can stop it. Some of the leaders who want to bring back the old ways of living have to understand that this a new generation. A lot of things have changed in the world over the last five years and the same is true in Africa. It is not a continent apart. I think that is a sign. It is going to be difficult to turn the corner but the young people want it.

AC: How do you view Thabo Mbeki's role in Africa and his engagement with the West?

BM: I think he is an example even if he is not held up as an example in his own country. What he is doing for the continent is very important. In the Ivory Coast he is good. But it is also Africans ourselves who want to do something. Elections are a new way for Africans to be conscious about their problems; it's the whole continent. Everyone is involved. And this is a very African way of solving problems. All people are responsible, we are in it together and we have to deal with our problems. All are involved. It is an African solution and it is spreading.

Baaba Maal on the web