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Review: Baaba Maal, 'The Traveller'

Baaba Maal's new album, The Traveller, is out Jan. 15. (Courtesy of the artist)closemore
Baaba Maal's new album, The Traveller, is out Jan. 15. (Courtesy of the artist)

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.


 (Courtesy of the artist )
(Courtesy of the artist )

Two minutes and 35 seconds into "Fulani Rock," the rousing opening track on Baaba Maal's aptly titled The Traveller, there comes a strange worlds-colliding moment. Atop a dense and somewhat dissonant collage that recalls The Clash, the Senegalese legend has multi-tracked his voice doing a fierce, almost militaristic chant. When that falls abruptly away, he steps into the clear to sing a solo line. It's a dramatic moment in which his voice is enhanced by processing — that gliding, glossy Auto-Tune "Drake effect." It happens a few times before the rhythm resumes, and each time it feels a bit out of place, maybe even self-conscious.

Those who know Maal, now 62, from his string of gorgeous recordings in the '90s may need time to recalibrate. Because this singer has a gift, nearly unparalleled in all of popular music, for creating at once soaring and vulnerable melodies. He sings in a way that stirs hearts, no translation required. Maal, of all people, doesn't need digital effects.

The presence of such processing, even when it's as tastefully deployed as it is here, telegraphs something important about The Traveller: Its target audience is everyone but African-music purists. Since the early part of his career, Maal has explored textures and harmonies derived from Western rock and pop sources (his last album, 2009's Television, has a pronounced electronic sheen and features the pop band Brazilian Girls). The Traveller continues on that path. It finds Maal annexing sounds and production techniques from instantly recognizable global pop hits — the clipped cadences of Kendrick Lamar, the anthemic chords of U2 — and then personalizing them with his improvisational vocal style. In a way, he's aspiring to the music equivalent of the auto industry's global platform: a standardized sound, flecked with just enough authenticating exotica that it can resonate in Berlin and Portland and Dakar.

There's calculation involved in this approach, and it's as jarringly audible as those vocal passages. Consider "Lampenda," which sounds like the Fulani version of U2's "Where The Streets Have No Name." The song starts almost at a whisper, very human in scale. Then it erupts into an arena-sized four-on-the-floor pulse, and the bigness of that moment obliterates the tender singing Maal brings early in the track, with acoustic-guitar accompaniment. The closing tracks ("War" and "Peace") are similarly diffuse patchworks, with hip-hop references that seem inhospitable as backdrops for Maal's loose, resolutely free phrasing.

Maal collaborated with producer and multi-instrumentalist Johan Hugo (from the London Afropop band The Very Best) on The Traveller, and they sometimes struggle to reach a comfortable balance between ancient and modern sounds, African and global themes. "Fulani Rock" begins at a roar and stays intense throughout, hitting a thoroughly absorbing, confrontational tone that's not sustained in the more reflective tracks that follow. The tune is a statement of identity: Maal comes from an inland area of Senegal where the language is Fulani, not the more prevalent Wolof, and he sounds fierce as he addresses his language and its connection to the daily life of his people. He's compelling when he reflects on his heritage, even though the maelstrom around him is a million miles from tradition. Elsewhere on The Traveller, West African identity is conveyed deliberately — check out the pensive electric guitar that provides counterpoint in the gorgeous title track, as well as the beautifully captured kalimba that deftly shadows his voice in "Gilli Men."

The album's highlight is a wispy, wondrous meditation titled "Kalaajo." It's a showcase for Maal's subtle mastery of vocal phrasing: Rather than shout, as he must elsewhere, he carves out a delicate atmosphere in which the texture (and tremble) of his voice can do the beseeching. Like much of his best work, the tune has a powerful melody that's made more transfixing by the austere setting and the patient way he unravels each line. When a musician possesses this type of instantly wrenching voice, and uses it so compellingly, modern tools are quickly rendered irrelevant.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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