African pop has absorbed countless outside influences, but one element that has never mixed well, despite many attempts, is American cash. Senegal's Baaba Maal is among the most sophisticated stylistic blenders, and with every new album he ventures out further to bring in new sounds. Yet unlike so many crossover hopefuls who lose their personalities in bland, synthesizer-heavy arrangements, English-language vocals, and rock guitars--take Papa Wemba, whose slick set brought the recent Africa Fete bill at House of Blues to a screeching halt--he has always borrowed gracefully and purposefully, incorporating the bits into a modernist griot music. But the new Nomad Soul (on Island founder Chris Blackwell's new label, Palm Pictures)--his first album since 1994's perfect Firin' in Fouta (Mango)--opens with a couple of tracks that suggest Maal has finally jumped for the gravy train. On "I Will Follow You (Souka Nayo)" his soaring, spiritual vocals are massaged by the soulless, saccharine English-language singing of Sinead O'Connor's backup vocalists the Screaming Orphans, while "Africans Unite (Yiyolela)," with reggae star Luciano, comes off like a worldbeat "We Are the World." But these two tunes, it turns out, are aberrations; as "Lam Lam," a long, atmospheric, hypnotic tune recorded with Brian Eno, Howie B., and Jon Hassell, proves, few artists can tie it all together like Maal. When he and his crack band Daande Lenol perform live, all of the genre-hopping dissolves into a lean, powerful booty-kicking good time with wild, frenetic dancing. As a bonus Jamaican guitar legend Ernest Ranglin will sit in for a few tunes; he jams with Maal's band on his own new In Search of the Lost Riddim (Palm Pictures), and the perfectly conceived fusion should serve as a model for future transatlantic experiments. Thursday, July 23, 8 and 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Baaba Maal photo by Melodie McDaniels.