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In the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, who performs with his band at Lisner tonight, was a high-profile name in Afropop. Then after 2001’s acoustic Missing You effort, he largely disappeared from the public eye, in the U.S. at least. Maal was not sitting at home. During the last decade, he’s performed at the 2003 Nelson Mandela concert in South Africa, headlined festivals in the U.K., toured Europe with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express revue, soundtracked the X-Box game Far Cry 2, and was active in various development activities to help the poor of his country. But he didn’t release a new album until 2009’s Television.
On this fine but largely overlooked effort, the small-town-born, college-educated 50-something moved beyond traditional polyrhythmic Senegalese sounds. Working with Italian-born vocalist Sabina Sciubba and Argentinian keyboardist Didi Gutman of the New York-based Brazilian Girls, guitarist/producer Barry Reynolds (best-known for work with Grace Jones and Marianne Faithful), and members of his own Daande Lenol (Voice of the People) band, Maal had them add programmed rhythms and synthetic coloring, additional languages, and a variety of melodic techniques. Maal’s hypnotizing, Islam-rooted wail in Fulani, Wolof, and French still anchors each composition, but he’s often joined by Sciubba’s higher-pitched Italian singing, chanting, and harmonizing. The title cut quickly draws the listener in with both a repetitive yet striking keyboard beat as well as the duet approach, whichmixes and matches Maal’s up-and-down-the-scale range with Sciubba’s distinctive but less wide-ranging, multilingual art-rock drawl. On “Cantaloupe” Maal initially whistles the melody while on “A Song for Women” his Senegalese vocal contrasts the breathy drawl of Sciubba overtop a mix of traditional percussion and 21st century keyboard tinkling. On “Dakar Moon,” Maal softly sings in English over flamenco-like acoustic guitar. While in the hands of some, such cross-genre exercises can sound forced, that doesn’t happen here. The advance word on his recent shows is that Maal has expertly adapted this album to live performance. He’s always been a charismatic performer with a band adept at funky West African sounds, and tonight’s gig should display those skills on both old-school and new-school grooves.
Baaba Maal performs tonight at 8 p.m. at Lisner Auditorium, 21st & H Streets NW. $15-35. (202) 994-6800.