My best teacher

17th June 2005 at 01:00
I come from a big family. My father had two wives so there were 15 brothers and sisters in the family and lots of older cousins and aunts. We all lived together in the same house. My father was the muezzin, the man who would call people to prayer at the mosque. My mother was a popular musician. In my hometown, Podor, on the river Senegal, you could see a lot of ethnic groups living together. That was where I got my feeling for singing and travelling in my mind, for discovering cultures without moving from my hometown.

I remember my first school as a time when we discovered things and teachers were our guides. The first one was Madame Sy. She was nearly the age of my mum and she wore the same sort of clothes. She was very kind and good with people, a mixture of a mother and a teacher. One teacher I really respected was Mr Ba, he taught me the last year before I went to high school. He really helped me to become a singer. I was starting to sing in the classroom underneath the table and he knew that I was doing it, but he never beat me. He would say "I know you are going to be a singer." The one before him, Mr Kane, was a really good teacher, but every time he heard me singing he would say "Get out!" Singing was my thing and sometimes I forgot I was in the classroom.

I went to Charles de Gaulle high school in St Louis - it was the first really modern high school in Senegal, a boarding school. I was very happy there. Madame du Luc, my teacher of music, was French and I had never met a Western person before. She gave me the best mark every time. I had never learned it before, but my mind was so open to music everything she was saying went straight in.

I was in the Boy Scouts and one year they had a big meeting in Dakar. There were a lot of reporters there from the radio recording the people singing.

They were all saying to me, "Baaba Maal, go on, you have to perform!" That was the first time I took the microphone. The same day they were playing it on the radio, saying "here is a young boy from Podor, maybe he's going to be a professional singer". I was not concerned about that, I was just doing it because I loved singing.

I was supposed to go on to be a music teacher, but after I made some recordings at the radio I changed my mind. I hid my choice from my parents, and when they started putting my records on the radio I asked them not to say my name. One day I came home and my dad had heard my song on the radio - he said he knew it was me. He said if I was going into music I must promise him I would always sing songs that people could learn from. He said: "If you are doing it just to be famous and have girls around you, then I am not with you." I think I have kept my promise.

After college I went travelling with my friend Mansour Seck. This is something that is normal for professional African singers and musicians; it is how they get popular. They meet people, sing for them in small parties, and the people give the singers money or horses or clothes - that's how they get paid.

Mansour has been my friend from childhood. He is a Griot, which is the caste of musicians in Senegal. I was from a family of fishermen. The traditional African family of musicians is very closed. If you are a good singer you can express yourself in popular music - that belongs to everyone - but classical music you are not able to touch.

When we were travelling Mansour was able to pass into a village of Griots.

I was the only one who was not a Griot that they allowed to be there and see and learn. We were always together, always listening. It was a natural way of learning. If it was not for him, I would never have been able to learn so much.

Musician Baaba Maal was talking to Harvey McGavin

The story so far

1953 Born Podor, Senegal

1960 Podor elementary school

1965 Charles de Gaulle high school, Dakar

1973 Joins Asly Fouta orchestra

1979 Travels West Africa with Mansour Seck

1981 Studies at Ecole Des Beaux Arts, Paris

1984 Forms group Daande Lenol (voice of the people) and records first album, Djam Leelli, with Mansour Seck

1996 Nominated for a Grammy

2003 Becomes youth emissary for the United Nations Development Programme, on its Aids awareness campaign

2005 Ambassador for Sightsavers. Their Send My Friend to School day, to highlight the fact that four out of every 10 sub-Saharan children do not have a school place, is on June 23, www.sendmyfriend.org

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