Baaba Maal | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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On Senegalese pop star Baaba Maal's new album, Firin' in Fouta (Mango), a slick, voraciously genre-blending effort, the vocalist--second only to Youssou N'Dour in popularity for an artist from his country--travels the world investigating all sorts of divergent styles. The production is unapologetically big, recorded in several studios around the world with lots of guest musicians. Yet for all of the larger-than-life grandeur, the core of the music remains the spiritualism of Maal's longtime backing band Dande Lenol (Voice of the People) and the leader's gorgeous soul-searching vocals. Maal is the oddball of Senegalese music; in a land where careers in music are passed down through family lines he bucked the system, leaving his hometown of Podor, a small town on Senegal's northern border with Mauritania, for extensive studies in the country's capital, Dakar, and later in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Known as the music's intellectual, he takes a thoroughly modern approach that's extremely inclusive, and in interviews he stresses open-endedness. At his legendary live performances, however, the global modernism gives way to smoking Senegalese grooves. Though he mixes the rhythms of many of the country's peoples, he himself is a member of the Fulani, the first Muslim group in Senegal, and this tradition is palpable in his music. Amid the stylistic hodgepodge of Maal's recordings his piercing voice is the constant, a soaring and inspirational melismatic cry that unites soul, Islamic devotional singing, and blues, among other styles, into a seamless, moving whole. For this rare Chicago gig Maal will be supported by a 13-piece version of Dande Lenol. Not to be missed. Friday, 9:30 and 11:30 PM, HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee; 235-2334.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Juergen Teller.

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