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Senegalese singer Baaba Maal’s “Tales from the Sahel” show tonight at the Birchmere should prove to be very different from his last local appearance a year and half ago. That gig offered his 13-piece band Daande Lenol adapting songs from his 2009 album Television, which featured programmed beats and guest vocals from members of New York band Brazilian Girls. But tonight, this longtime vocalist—-whose high-pitched timbre has led him to be dubbed “The Nightingale”—-will be just joined by percussionist Mermans Mosengo, British multi-instrumentalist Jim Palmer, and longtime British music critic and author Chris Salewicz.
Via email, Maal explained that the tour, which includes acoustic music alternating with question-and-answers segments, “is something I have been doing for many years in Africa and is how musicians have performed for centuries. In the west I was invited to give a lecture at the British Museum about five years ago and I brought my guitar along and it’s progressed from there.” The Sahel is a belt-shaped region of grasslands and savannahs that stretches from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia and Eritrea in the East. The college-educated Maal’s father was a nomadic farmer in that region. As a teenager and 20-something Maal toured Senegal and Europe with guitarist and griot Mansour Seck, and they would recount historical tales and perform.
Maal first met Salewicz, who has penned books on Bob Marley and Joe Strummer, 20 years ago when the critic, after seeing Maal perform in Paris, visited him in his home town of Podor. “Every show has been different so Chris has surprised me every night,” he says, adding “that the beauty of this show is that we don’t know where the discussions will lead.” Maal says that with this spoken segment he is trying to convey “something of the rich and vibrant culture of Africa and how culture is an important part of the process to educate, and how we should all work together for a better future.” Similarly with the choice of songs Maal states, the setlist “does change every night and I sing some very old songs and a couple of new ones, but I like to keep it as a surprise.”
Maal had intended to have his longtime percussionist Mamadou Sarr with him on the entire tour, but Saar was blocked from getting his visa in a timely manner. “No reason was given, just more time was needed for processing. I have just heard that he might have a visa granted in time for the last three shows this weekend so we are waiting with fingers crossed. He was so upset he could not travel; Mamadou toured the U.S. last year and there was no problem. However we have been fortunate that my great friends from the band Playing For Change lent me Mermans Mosengo, their amazing percussionist, for the tour.” Maal says he began working with the other musician on this tour, Jim Palmer, “about five years ago, and Jim was very important during the recordings of my last album Television. I invited him to play with my African band Daande Lenol when we went on the road and he has even come to Senegal a few times to play shows in Dakar. He is so versatile and plays so many instruments including drums sometimes on this tour.”
This tour is not the only item the busy Maal is working on. “I have been in the studio a lot recently working with Playing For Change,” he says, plus “a young very talented musician from the U.K. called Jamie Woon, and I have just released an album in Senegal only called Souvenier. I am sure some of these projects will be released shortly here.” In addition, there’s his annual Senegalese music festival. “Its going very well, thank you, we are now on the sixth edition and will be held in Podor, northern Senegal over the first weekend of December. It’s called ‘Les Blues du Fleuve [The Blues of the River].’ You are all invited to come!”
Baaba Maal performs at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Avenue, Alexandria. $35. (703) 549-7500