Senegal & Colombia / The Ambassadors
Words alone are not enough to make a message. Without the context to support it and the commitment to convey it, the language event that constitutes a message may fail reach people.
Passionate cultural ambassadors of their respective countries expressed hearts and minds at two separate Hay Festival events. While Baaba Maal, the Festival’s star turn, spoke for the culturally disenfranchised of Senegal and Africa, communications professor Jesús Martín-Barbero and filmmaker Felipe Aljure did the same for the host country of Colombia and, by implication, Latin America. The words of the latter echoed the African musician’s and are reproduced here as a harmonic chorus to his message.
Taking centre stage against the Colonial-style backdrop went to a humble-born man whose would teach his African brethren and friends the world over that Africa has an opportunity for a tremendous future, if the word is spread and the support is there. If the shadowplay is clothed and made real.
Baaba Maal, the celebrated Senegalese musician, emphasized to an attentive audience how vital music is in Africa for community and education. In the West, music is often an entertainment industry’s consumer product. “African music is not for business,” he said. “It is to celebrate, to tell the stories, to talk about responsibility of people in the community: music is always there.” (The audio-visual arts should tell the big truths, the little truths, they are all valid; cinema has a debt, a responsibility to participate in the reflection of the country FA). If, as the interviewer suggested, the Western musical experience today is all about plugged-in individuality, for the African, unless music is shared, it is as lifeless as a story, a joke or a hug that is kept to oneself. What is it that is shared?
“Feelings, information, hope,” said the man who has been a special envoy in Africa for the United Nations.
As artist and committed social reformer both, Baaba Maal is keenly aware that his music provides a medium for extremely important cultural messages. “It is a way of teaching young ones a way into social life,” he spelled out. “Giving them lessons, so they understand what’s going on.” Great care is taken to make the communicative codes of the performance clear. “The choreography, the looks on faces, the costumes are very important,” the singer explained. “The colours change if you are playing in the rainy season, or representing spirituality, or joy, or sadness.” (The tone and rhythm of the narrator matter, the texture is felt and shouted and heard JMB).
The teachings can be very specific. Baaba described how musicians used hip-hop —which is very strong in Senegal— to educate adults on how to vote: where to pick up their polling cards and how they must deposit them in the election boxes. “Africa is so deep; most of the people live in rural areas, they don’t speak French or English, they don’t get information so they can’t understand decisions: how can they be brought into the process?” (The immense majority of the inhabitants of Latin America have a culture which is oral JMB). Baaba Maal answered his own question: “Education,” he declared, is the biggest challenge facing Africa today, echoing similar comments made earlier by Sierra Leonian Aminatta Forna: “Education is the key to opening your mind. In the 21st Century, no one should be living without education. With it, it will be so much easier for people to communicate with the rest of the world, to help them choose what they want to do and put that across,” he said referring to the communication gap that often separates indigent villages from prospective benefactors.
Music has life; it joins people in its playfulness and allows educational messages to be communicated. “Music is the only thing that can bring them all together in the same place,” said Baaba Maal. (One learns by playing. The education system went to rot here when play was eliminated from the learning experience JMB. Life is audio-visual; it isn’t written FA).
Education likewise provides a mirror in which a people can see itself reflected; when it records its past and marks its inheritance, identity and social cohesion are strengthened. (Every new generation has an obligation to deal with the big questions: where we are coming from, where we are going. The cultural DNA which is passed on from father to son has a genetic value FA). “Music passes history from generation to generation, but it needs to be written, also,” Baaba said, recognizing also the value of the written word. When someone pointed out that very few people understand what he is singing in his native Pulaar, the man whose dozen albums have sold all over the world agreed that it was a fault and that he should probably provide lyrics with CDs, translated into English and French. When another objection was raised by a black-skinned man from the predominantly white audience, saying that in a city with the highest proportion of descendants of Afro-Americans, very few had been present at his concert (for lack of the cash to pay entry), Baaba Maal again acknowledged that the speaker was right. “We were planning on coming here to be in touch with people. Yesterday we didn’t see them. Maybe next time the organizers can do something about that.”
If a message needs more than words to escape the fate of turning to mere shadows —a context, a medium and a necessity— it also needs a voice and an attitude that will win people over. Baaba Maal’s willingness to listen to constructive criticism and modesty seemed to exemplify this. “It’s very difficult to say only music can help people make decisions in Africa,” he said. “Musicians show that they are closer to the community than politicians, and they can push politicians in the right direction.” (To recount is also to call to account JMB).
Above all, Baaba Maal stressed what a tremendous untapped will there was in the African continent to make positive change happen: amongst women’s associations, desperate to do something, amongst young people. “There is such good energy there.”
In a Cartagena that throbs to Afro-Caribbean beats and has seen neighbourhoods liberate themselves from lawlessness, and in a Colombia that has countless voluntary groups and associations eager to improve social stability and open up opportunities to the victims of inequality and armed conflict, this message rang around loud and true from the halls of the Hay Festival.
Baaba Maal is a uniquely talented singer from Senegal. He is equally at home with an acoustic guitar playing traditional folk music or playing the hottest international dance music. Also known as The Nightingale because of his clear high-pitched voice, he sings in Pulaar, the language of the Fula ethnic group. Active in the fight against hunger and AIDS in Africa, he works with Oxfam and other NGOs and has been a special envoy in Africa for the United Nations.