I prefer my Baaba Maal in a quiet, acoustic vein — the stark beauty of his songs and the limpid, occasionally plaintive, sadness in his vocals made his record “Missing You” my solace soundtrack of choice immediately after 9/11 and thus my most cherished album of 2001. (That the Senegalese Maal is Islamic somehow deepened the poignancy.)
Maal waited eight years after “Missing You” before releasing his next, and latest, studio album, “Television,” last June. It is a very different affair — more Westernized, with tinges of electronica and sprightly dance beats. It was produced by Barry Reynolds — best known for getting some sleek spits-and-polish on the saucy persona of Grace Jones back in her androgynous, post-disco prime — and features the electro-pop cheekiness of the Brazilian Girls, the Grace Joneses of the 21st Century.
It would be wrong to lump it in with the crass stabs at crossing over to Western audiences that too many African artists attempted during the first “world music” wave of the ’80s. People unfamiliar with Maal are more apt to hear the sophisticated textures in the music and how his vocals — which often veer into exhortation in the griot tradition — can intensify or tamp down the mix with masterful élan.
But there is still no escaping that “Television” is inconsistent — jarringly so, in juxtaposition with “Missing You.” There is a ditty titled “Cantaloupe,” replete with whimsical whistling, most charitably described as unintended kitsch. The title song, about television coming to Africa, has the effervescent canter of a club track before down-shifting into a mid-tempo groove that doesn’t quite add up. And a couple of other songs are simply boring.
But check out the blend of African roots and gently insouciant beats that puts subtle steam heat behind the back-and-forth vocals of Maal and Brazilian Girl Sabina Sciubba on “A Song for Women.” Or listen to how easily Maal regains the riveting command of acoustic settings on the final two songs, the flamenco-flavored “Dakar Moon” (sung in English), and the closing “Tindo Quando.”
Maal will most likely bring the traditional elements of African rave-ups to his Sunday concert at the Cedar, including the hip-shaking dance showcases and the intoxicating pace and variety of talking drums solos. There will be electric guitar and tunes to put you on the balls of your feet.
But there are also going to be some ballads, set off by an acoustic guitar or judicious percussion that will bring the Cedar to a rapt standstill. Few performers can do this as well as Baaba Maal. And that’s why I’m going.
Here is a relatively informal rendition of “Thiaroye” performed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, last month.
And here is some of that hip-shakin’ from the Festival La Sur Le Niger, also from earlier this year.
Baaba Maal at the Cedar Cultural Center, Sunday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $30 in advance, $35 day of show, standing room only remaining.