Few African musicians have mixed native traditions with contemporary trends more creatively or authoritatively than Senegalese pop star Baaba Maal. Throughout the 90s he released a series of albums that stretched further and further to pull in listeners around the globe; his hybridizing approach, always grounded by deep West African grooves, reached its apex on 1994's Firin' in Fouta (Mango), but by 1998, when he released Nomad Soul (Palm Pictures), his music was beginning to collapse under its own weight. Sinead O'Connor's backing singers sucked the air out of the album's opener, "I Will Follow You (Souka Nayo)," and "Africans Unite," with its simplistic we-are-the-world vibe, was downright hokey. But such excesses have been curtailed on Maal's terrific new album, Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) (Palm Pictures), a primarily acoustic affair recorded under the stars in Nbunk, a village outside of Dakar. Incidental sounds drift through each song--the chirping of crickets, the voices of children playing, and what seems to be the chuff of passing cars--but the music is not casual. Maal composed all of the songs, and the gorgeous interplay of instruments--guitar as well as kora (a harp), balafon (a cousin of the xylophone), calabash (a gourd), tama (a high-pitched "talking" drum), and ngoni (a lute)--has been meticulously arranged, the colors blending in a kaleidoscopic swirl rather than a glop of gray. African sounds dominate, but bits of Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean percussion turn up here and there, and Maal's soaring, melismatic singing transcends all language barriers. His live shows are traditionally extravaganzas, with high-energy dancing, singing, and soloing that work the audience into a frenzy. Friday, August 31, 6:30 PM, African Festival of the Arts (see sidebar for complete schedule), Washington Park, 55th and Cottage Grove, 773-955-2787, and 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo, 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eddie Monsoon.