Thursday, September 16, 2010

Senegalese "Demigod" in Concert: Baaba Maal

September 11 marked the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. The Festival d’Ile de France, a multicultural event that has taken place in September and October every year since 1990, provided a special treat for the occasion—a feast comprised of dishes from Senegal, Congo, and Guinea, followed by a concert featuring Senegal’s Baaba Maal.

The meal and concert were held at the Académie Fratellini in Saint-Denis, a site dedicated entirely to circus arts. Dinner was served in a large hall, and the concert was held in a round theater located just steps away. When we arrived at 7:30 PM, the entry lines were already long. Fortunately, we had pre-purchased tickets to the concert, so we were among the first of several persons allowed to enter when the gates opened.

Family going to celebrate the end of Ramadan
© Discover Paris!

We made our way to the hall, where dinner was served church-bazaar style. Attendees purchased meal tickets for an 8 euro formule (entrée, main dish, and dessert), or selected their dishes à la carte. They then passed through a line to collect their orders. I dined on poulet boucané (smoked chicken) and alocco (fried plantains), and a dessert of beignets (similar to fried doughnut holes) of coconut and ginger. My husband Tom 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, and quite tasty!

After dinner, attendees did not waste time getting over to the theater to claim a good place for the concert. Seating was not assigned, so the early birds got the pick of the benches on the lower level. The upper tier of the building had only broad, wooden steps to sit on. We sat in the upper tier, but were fortunate to find a place almost directly in front of the stage. We had a great view of everything!

The concert began with Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck singing a ballad of sorts, while the rest of the band waited in the wings. The crowd went wild over this song! Maal then addressed the audience with welcoming, yet sober words of how gatherings in Africa traditionally begin with dinner, followed by a regrouping of attendees in a central area where important issues are discussed with discrete musical accompaniment. He wanted to open the concert in this tradition. He then spoke of the youth of Africa—of how so many children suffer from lack of education, violence bred from the lack of democracy and effective government, AIDS… .  He asked the audience to think of these children, and to send them something to make their lives just a little better.

Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck
© Discover Paris!

A guitarist and a percussionist then joined him on stage, and the group began to play again.

A third song brought out the remainder of the band. The entire group consisted of:

Baaba Maal – vocals, guitar
Aliou Diouf – drums
Mbara Cisse – bass
Mohhamadou Sarr – percussions
Cire (Barou) Sall – hoddu
Mama Gaye – acoustic guitar
Mansour Seck – chorus

At one point between songs, Maal addressed the audience in a language that Tom and I did not understand. The crowd responded with shouts, cheers, and raised arms. Maal definitely struck an emotional chord! He would elicit the same response with his songs again and again throughout the evening.

The band took no break as the concert proceeded. The few security guards on duty had their hands full trying to keep people from coming onto the stage to photograph Maal and the band. It soon became apparent that people also wanted to access the stage to give Maal money, presumably in response to the plea that he made for Africa’s children at the beginning of the concert. Many sought to touch his robes or his head as well. One woman was so overcome with emotion that she broke down and sobbed in front of the singer, who crouched down to comfort her. 

Money in Maal’s lap and on the floor
© Discover Paris!

Emotional Encounter
© Discover Paris!

Soon, there was a pile of money at Maal’s feet! The guards then had a doubly difficult job because they had to watch for would-be photographers admixed with the joyful contributors who periodically crowded onto the stage.

Pile of money at Maal’s feet
© Discover Paris!

Guard trying to repel people on stage
© Discover Paris!

Eventually, one of the guards brought a small plastic bag onto the stage and stuffed all the money into it. And still, people came up to contribute. Several times, people also came onto the stage simply to dance. Maal and his crew were unperturbed, and they carried on amidst the commotion without missing a beat.

At the end of the evening, I had the feeling that I had witnessed a religious event, and that Maal was a demigod whose presence kindled the audience's fervent adulation!

Baaba Maal and His Band
© Discover Paris!

Baaba Maal is well known for his activism on behalf of Africa. He is the Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Program, and his commitment to young people and families all over Africa is never far from his mind as he tours the world. He often performs in support of various social and charitable projects that he believes in.


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