I first heard Baaba Maal sing many years ago on Afropop Worldwide, a radio program dedicated to promoting popular music from Africa. At the time, I greatly appreciated his music, but over the years other interests drew me away from listening to it. Just recently I learned that he would give a special performance in Paris celebrating Korité, the conclusion of the Islamic holy month of fasting. With my interest in hearing him sing rekindled, I quickly purchased tickets.
The performance was sponsored by Festival Ile-de-France, a cultural organization that brings music from throughout the world to the Ile-de-France region. Intriguingly, the performance would be held on the stage of the Académie Fratellini, an organization that teaches circus performance arts. This would be a great occasion to hear the great singer from Senegal!
Monique and I arrived early to enjoy a buffet-style dinner served by a charitable group called La Femme aux Milles Bras. Monique ordered poulet boucané, alocco (fried plantains), and a dessert of beignets of coconut and ginger. I chose the shredded carrot and corn salad, beef maffé (made with peanut sauce) and alocco, and a milk-based dessert called déguié. The food was simply presented, but quite tasty! During the dinner we noticed that many African men were dressed in colorful boubous. The women wore clothes that were even fancier—they sported colors that would rival those of the bird of paradise flower!
After this informal dinner, we left the hall and entered the circus big top. This is a fabulous structure built out of wood that holds 1,600 spectators. For the musical performance, though, it looked to me as if only half as many tickets were sold, so that there would be nobody sitting behind the performers. I would guess that about three quarters of the audience were wearing the beautiful Wax Hollandais fabrics that we had seen during dinner.
A big cheer went up when Baaba Maal came out on stage. During the course of the concert, he was joined onstage by six other musicians who comprised his band.
What was truly surprising about this concert was not the music, which was a joy to listen to, but the reaction of the audience to Maal’s presence on stage. People came up to dance in front of him, to leave money at his feet (presumably in response to the plea that he made for Africa’s children at the beginning of the concert), to touch his hair, to be photographed next to him, to try to convey messages to him, and to bow before him. During the entire concert, I found that the main attraction was not Maal’s music (the reason that I had come), but rather, this vision of dozens of people who came onstage to try to engage him in some way.
There were times during the concert when Maal and his band were literally mobbed by fans! Several bodyguards, including a particularly burly one who remained on stage at all times, had a devil of a time warding off people who wanted to take a close-up picture of Maal or of a friend who came up from behind to stand next to the singer. The musicians were apparently used to this adulation because they did not flinch, miss a beat, or falter at any time during the performance.
I found this spectacle rather distressing, as the view of so many people coming onstage to get close to Maal distracted from his masterful musical performance. In my mind, there was a real danger that the adulation could quickly degenerate into pandemonium. But Maal and his band remained cool during the whole performance.
Towards the end of the performance, his bodyguard scooped up the money that lay at Maal’s feet and stuffed it into a bag.
We left the concert early to catch an early train home. We were surprised to find that we had to pass through a phalanx of police massed outside the gates to leave the concert grounds. A large crowd of people was waiting peacefully in the street beyond them. I wondered, “Is this a normal gathering of the forces of law and order after a concert?”
As we made our way to the train station, we could sense no trouble brewing. We had an uneventful wait at the station for the train’s arrival, and an equally uneventful ride back to Paris.
Thank you, Baaba Maal, for your wonderful music!
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