The Traveller [Special Edition]

by: Baaba Maal

Senegalese singer, songwriter, and guitarist Baaba Maal hasn't recorded an album in six years, but he hasn't been idle. He's run an annual music festival, Blues du Fleuve, in his hometown of Podor in northern Senegal since 2006, and performed widely with the international unit Playing for Change. He's also been soaking up modern sounds. The Traveller, his 11th album, is drenched in electronic sounds that complement his meld of Senegalese folk and pop and offer the fruit of his journeys. It was produced by Johan Hugo (the Very Best), and recorded in Dakar and London. The Maal/Hugo collaboration first surfaced in March of 2014 with the raw dancefloor bubbler "Suma Rokia." The Traveller is simultaneously more polished and rootsier. Not (entirely) focused on the club, it leaves room for more of Maal's traditional sound even as it lets the electro flow. Opener "Fulani Rock" cooks. Mamadou Sarr's djembes thunder amid sonic vocal treatments by Hugo (AutoTune among them) as dirty, distorted guitars crisscross, creating a furious collision of rhythms that are momentarily interrupted by a martial chant in the bridge. It's followed by "Gilli Men." The acoustic guitars of Maal and Kalifa Baldi offer circular interplay amid loops and kalimbas. Maal's trance-like singing is supported by the Dakar Church Choir. Other cuts, such as "One Day," recall Maal's earlier work, but the layers of reverb, digital delay, and spiky electric guitars deliver compelling layers of texture and color. "Lampenda" commences as a simple Fulani folk song underscored by Maal and Baldi's gorgeous guitar playing (they should tour as a duo) and a church organ. But as multiple sabar drums enter the mix (by Bahkane Seck & Family), Hugo stirs in sweeping strings and keyboards, transforming it into a pop anthem -- and celebrates fishermen! The title track features an appearance by Mumford & Sons' Winston Marshall on banjo. Initially it resembles a Malian blues, playing behind multi-tracked backing vocals. But it quickly shifts into a gentle road song with a glorious four-voice male and female backing chorus adding the notion of celebration. There are big beats driving it all, but they're reined in by the canny, eclipsing interplay between Maal and Baldi. The final two cuts, co-written with author Lemn Sissay -- who speaks them in English -- are "War" and "Peace." Maal plays guitar and sings in the backdrop. The former is an urgent, drum-driven call to reject the perils of nationalism; the latter is a prayer for the healing of people and the Earth. Its peul flute, kora, guitars, and organic percussion add an emotional resonance to the lyric. Maal's embrace of technology on The Traveller isn't new: he's been open to it since 2009's Television; it's simply more pervasive here. Nonetheless, he has found a way to use it as a simple extension of his iconic sound. In these songs Maal continues to celebrate his people, his culture, and the Fulani language, even as he presents the listener with challenges to their preservation from inside and outside Senegal. ~ Thom Jurek

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