It is difficult to overstate Baaba Maal’s significance in promoting West-African music on the international stage. The pop superstar is a larger-than-life figure, with a towering discography spanning over 20 collaborative and solo album releases. Eclectic, dark and deeply rhythmic, his newest release Being is a far cry from the pleasant desert blues of the preceding album, The Traveller.
Maal is no longer the youthful songbird of his 90s heyday, yet his seven-year hiatus since the release of The Traveller seems to have granted him fresh room for experimentation and innovation in the electronically inspired Being. One of Maal’s most satisfying and sombre releases yet, Being’s only drawback is that it is, on occasion, somewhat clunky in its electronic arrangements, though its trance-like droning continuity largely alleviates this.
The album’s opener ‘Yerimayo Celebration’ briefly lulls us into a false sense of familiarity with its bluesy intro, before launching into a pulsating rhythm driven by percussionist Mamadou Sarr, whose drums pound triumphantly over the mix. The song is a nod to the fishermen of Maal’s hometown, kicking-off a recurring theme throughout the album where he discusses the impact of modernity and technology on the voices of young Africans.
The track maintains a dark, meditative edge which aids the transition into ‘Freak Out’, the album’s darkest entry. Featuring production duo The Very Best, with whom Baaba Maal had previously worked with on his collaborative project with Mumford and Sons, the track is grounded by a slow trap beat and deep 808s. Maal’s vocals are aesthetically autotuned during the verses, superposed by scorched electronic sounds which give the track an almost aggressively hypnotic feel.
The droning harmonies are only given room to breathe during the chorus, which provides respite from the intentional claustrophobia we experience. Here, Esau Mwamwaya sings what is arguably Being’s catchiest chorus, complemented by a Ngoni-guitar lick which soars delightfully alongside Myamwaya’s voice.
Despite having its redeeming features, ‘Ndungu Ruumi’ is potentially the album’s weakest song. Though its heavily reverbed melodies successfully convey the eerie tension accumulated throughout the track, the climactic percussion-driven conclusion is not as satisfying as it ought to be. This somewhat forgettable tune is, however, followed by one of the album’s strongest. ‘Agreement’ is a poignant and powerful ballad, its lyrical content referring to the power nested within an agreement.
The track refers to a proverb from Baaba Maal community, recognizing that it is more mature to be wary of permanent agreements than to promise eternality and fall short. The ticking, repetitive sonic structure serves as an elegant metaphor for the mundaneness that can reside in relationships and collective journeys, if they are not taken seriously. Maal’s vocals here are at their soothing, searching and soaring best.
‘Boboyillo’ is the second trap-inspired track on the album, driven by a decent groove which features vocals from Rougi. The tune is easy to enjoy, juxtaposing traditional West-African instruments with a simple trap beat. Rougi’s voice intriguingly blends into Maal’s own, before the song transitions into the second track of the album that leaves us wanting. The vocals in ‘Mbeda Wella’ are more joyous, even triumphant, than the album has offered so far, but the song is overall somewhat forgettable. The mix is cluttered and muddy, and the song, despite being the second longest on the album, never leads anywhere satisfying; apart from a fun, if somewhat messy, rap verse from Paco Lenol.
The final tune, ‘Casamance Nights’, is perhaps the secret gem of the album. Standing at nine minutes long (almost a quarter of the whole album), ‘Casamance Nights’ is a slow-building melancholic journey, featuring perhaps the most beautiful melodies and harmonies on the whole album. The stripped-back tune continues the theme of droning soundscapes; in this case strengthened by the recording of chirping crickets, a nostalgic and warmly atmospheric sound familiar to anyone who has grown up with the ambient evenings found closer to the equator. Despite its length, the track never drags and provides a wholly satisfying conclusion to a strong album.
On Being, Baaba Maal proves even at his age he is incapable of running out of steam, creating one of his most experimental releases yet. Rhythmically powerful and lyrically thoughtful, Being is one of the most exciting releases in Maal’s long discography. Though a couple of the songs possess skippable qualities, the record more often than not sticks the landing.