Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section
(last revision 02/11/99)


Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck are childhood friends from  the town of  Podor in the Fouta Toro region where Senegal meets Mauritania; they are Tukolor. Seck, who is from a griot family and who began losing his eyesight at an early age, was Maal's guide to the world of music, while the latter became Seck's guide in the visual world. Together they embarked on several extended trips to neighboring regions, staying with griot families and studying and assimilating the local musical traditions. Baaba Maal later went on to study at the music conservatory in Dakar and won a scholarship to continue his study of Western musical theory at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Playing at cafes and nightclubs, he managed to save enough money to bring his friend to France. Together they assembled the necessary funds and recorded "Djam Leelii". British DJ John Peel says that, when he first heard this recording, it was "like listening to Muddy Waters for the first time".

As a major port and trading post, Podor has long been of point of passage for different peoples, cultures and musics. This rich musical heritage is quite evident on "Djam Leelii". Baaba Maal has stated that the music of the Wolof, the largest ethnic group in Senegal, is "more about rhythm" than that of his native Fouta Toro, which is "much more related to Malian and Guinean music and the music of the Niger River" and is "much more melodious." (The Rough Guide to World Music, p. 271) Although perhaps somewhat of a simplification, Maal's distinction does seem to apply to this CD, where his acoustic guitar and that of Mansour Seck provide the primary instrumentation: Papa Seck adds some sweet percussion on a few tracks, while on others, Aziz Dieng and Jombo Kuyateh play electric guitar and balafon respectively. 

Although the liner notes do not indicate which guitarist plays lead, on the basis of a subjective comparison of the lead guitar work on this CD and that of Seck's solo work (see below), the case could be made that Seck is responsible for most of the lead guitar on these songs. Baaba Maal himself seems to imply as much when he says "He (Seck) is the guitarist and I'm the singer". (liner notes to Mansour Seck, "N'der Fouta Tooro Vol.1"). In the spirit of fairness however, I should quote Eric Charry who, in his article "The Grand Mande Guitar Tradition" (The World of Music 36 (2) 1994, p. 37) writes that Baaba Maal " is primarily known as a singer, but he is also a tasteful acoustic guitar player". (It should be noted as well that this article contains a partial transcription of the two guitar parts of the song "Muudo Hormo" that appears on this CD). Leaving the issue of who plays which guitar part somewhat unresolved, what is unmistakable is that throughout this recording the guitars add subtle and thoughtful melodic support for Baaba Maal's singing. Many of the songs begin with guitar intros; one such intro that stands out is that of "Sehilam", which is also one of the most strikingly beautiful songs on the CD.

The center of attention is, however, Baaba Maal's magnificent voice. Maal's singing displays a marked Islamic influence both in its tonality and in its melodic inflections, which comes as no surprise since his father was a muezzin who called the faithful to prayer and since Baaba Maal himself is a member of the Tijaniya brotherhood and comes from a highly Islamized region. Maal has used the Fula expression "daande heli" (which he translates as "voice exploding") to describe the development of his voice into a powerful expressive instrument (The Rough Guide to World Music, p. 271) and the term offers a fitting description of the raw power of his voice. Yet he is not simply someone with a great voice; he interprets the songs skillfully, teasing out their charms and embellishing their melodies in a myriad of interesting ways, rather than overwhelming them with bombast. To single out one performance, on the song "Djam Leelii", Maal masterfully builds up and releases tension by alternately restraining and unleashing the fury of his voice. Mansour Seck has a fine voice and at times adds effective harmony. One of few criticisms I have of this CD is that Maal and Seck do not sing together more often.

The liner notes (in English) are a bit disappointing; they are limited to short biographies of Maal and Seck and a translation of the title song "Djam Leelii" (The Adventurers) which tells the story of the young people of the Fouta Toro who are forced to emigrate to neighboring countries and to Europe in search of a better life; the sober sound of guitars, shekere, cymbals and voices evoke vividly the dry, barren land and the adventurers' nostalgia for their homeland. The songs on this CD are all excellent: they are stylistically diverse, yet form a harmonious whole. Although some of the songs ("Loodo" and "Maacina Tooro") are a bit more spritely and joyous, the overall mood of this CD is solemn. The arrangements of the songs are sparse and straightforward; artifice is simply not needed when music is this beautiful. The sound quality of the recording itself is crisp and clear.

Baaba Maal is nothing if not a versatile artist. After recording "Djam Leelii" he, generally with Mansour Seck at his side, went on record several CDs with electric bands. On a CD like "Firin' in Fouta" (Mango 162-539 944-2), he blends kora and tama with synths, horns, electric guitars, bodrans and Celtic harps, fusing regional styles of African music with American funk and rap, Cuban mambo and Western classical into a music that is both complex and fervent, danceable yet containing enough nuances to enable it stand up to repeated listenings. (For anyone who is keeping track of these things, I believe that in a reply to Adam Rugo a few months ago I indicated that I didn't like "Firin' In Fouta" all that much. Going back to it several times in the meantime has lead me to revise that opinion substantially.) He also composed and performed the music to a fine Senegalese film, "Guelwaar", directed by Sembene Ousemane. Mansour Seck has recorded three CDs under his own name (N'der Fouta Tooro Vol. 1 (Stern's Africa STCD 1061), N'der Fouta Tooro Vol. 2 (Stern's Africa STCD 1061) and Yeyalo (Stern's Africa) on his own with an occasional guest performance from Maal. Seck stays closer to his roots on these primarily acoustic recordings, all of which should appeal to lovers of "Djam Leelii". 

1. Lamtooro
2. Loodo
3. Muudo Hormo
4. Salminanam
5. Maacina Tooro
6. Djam Leeli
7. Bibbe Leydy
8. Sehilam
9. Kettodee 

BAABA MAAL: Vocal, acoustic guitar
MANSOUR SECK: Vocal, acoustic guitar
Aziz Dieng: Electric guitar
Papa Dieye: Percussion
Jombo Kuyateh: Balafon