Baaba Maal’s thrilling act and immigration through ragas in New York

Baaba Maal (right) with the Town Hall Ensemble at The Town Hall, May 4, 2019. Photo by Sachyn Mital.

NEW YORK – What can one say of a singer whose svelte voice rises up like smoke in a valley, merging with clouds up in mountains, is as startlingly powerful as a plaintive cry from a forest, rising up above canopy of trees? Whose pulsating, haunting voice disseminates distance and memory, conjures, jostles shards of images from the past, mock language travails and translations.

Words are not enough to describe the unique talent and prowess of the Senegalese singer, guitarist and music visionary Baaba Maal. The resounding power of his astonishing vocal chords was heard in the Academy Award-winning soundtrack of the film ‘Black Panther’, by Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson.

Those who craved to hear Maal in person, see him in the flesh sing and perform more than one song, were satiated earlier this month at the Town Hall in New York City, where he regaled and mesmerized the packed house for almost two hours.

For half of that time, the audience, in tandem, were up on their feet, swaying their bodies, clapping in unison, fascinated by one of the greatest contemporary singers that Africa has produced.

Some tried to dance in seat, some ran up to be close to the stage, take photos of Maal; some even jumped up on stage, did impromptu dance numbers, to the wild, rhythmic beats.

Though it all, Maal, like a Zen master of music, meditative at times, smiling and dancing at other times, seemed to enjoy himself as much as the audience, the ingenious music concoctions created by the fusion of music by some members of his band, and the Town Hall Ensemble, directed by trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader Steven Bernstein.

The powerful exploration of eclectic music, through a medley of African drums, talking drum, bass, and horns, was a testament to the power of Maal to crisscross eastern and western boundaries effortlessly with his voice.

He had previously played in New York eight years ago, and in between numbers jocularly remarked of a next album, following his ‘Traveller’, in 2016. It’s likely that the fusion ensemble music will be part of that rendition.

Maal was appointed as a youth emissary for the United Nations Development Program in 2003, and global ambassador for Oxfam, focusing especially on women’s and children’s rights in Africa. His roots to social causes is reflected in his music, as is his love for rural communities.

The lilting folklore in Maal’s music, embellished with modern tunes, is something people from rural and urban communities in South Asia can well understand. More than anything, despite him singing all his songs in his native language, the audience reacted to him like the rock star that he is.


Pakistani American artist and writer Ali Sethi’s mellifluous intonations of ragas, of water, rain and thunder – with its gentle ups and downs, rising to a crescendo, dying to a sigh, then cascading like a wave rushing to a shore, was perfect emotive background score for the riveting multimedia work on immigration, ‘Where We Lost Our Shadows’, by the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning Chinese American composer Du Yun, in collaboration with the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, at a concert by the American Composers Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall, last month.

A clip from the film ‘Where We Lost Our Shadows’ during the concert at Carnegie Hall. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Hall.

The multi-media performance was the highlight of the concert. The Shanghai-born and raised Du had won the Pulitzer for her 2016 opera ‘Angel’s Bone,’ which dealt with the concept of human trafficking. Performance artist and singer Helga Davis, and versatile Brooklyn-based percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, were part of the multi-media performance; gave it even more eclectic flavor.

The compelling work was almost seamless in its blended narrative, as one forgot if the film on the refugee crisis in Europe, with innocent children in the midst of it all, was the background to the music, or the ragas and accompanying music was a score to give momentum and pathos to a story of poetic exodus.

The selection of ragas by Du, and its rendition by the New York-based and Harvard College alum Sethi, who is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel ‘The Wish Maker’, seemed to make the journey of immigrants in the film that much more plaintive.

Jarrar spent a month with a family emigrating from Syria, across the Aegean Sea, to Germany, and the film is the result of that. The mother of the family was a Palestinian refugee herself, who first sought refuge in Syria when she was an eight-year-old girl herself.

At the heart of the film is a road trip, fragile hope, especially for children, who laugh, are radiant, in the midst of a new adventure. Unmindful of uncertainties, peril.

There are fleeting and flitting lights in the distance, as the family marches on resolutely, day and night, on roads and streets, where cars zoom by, near stony embankments, perhaps water close by, danger just ahead.

Jarra’s film suggests that the journey could end up in peril, with no guarantee of traversing to safety. At night, the lights appear distant, the flight endless, with little respite, no succor in sight.

Jarrar’s film is a universal story of refugees, be it in Europe, or in America.

Jarrar doesn’t bring conclusion to the film, just like an endless raga, with new beginnings. The journey is fleeing to freedom, or perhaps not. He focuses on the nebulous distance, not much on faces. Resilience is tested beyond borders, yet has a precious message of hope in its rigors. That the night will turn to day. Bring eternal light and sunshine.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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