Baaba Maal has a bed big enough to sleep six people in either direction. We’re at his house in Podor, his hometown at the northernmost point of Senegal, and he’s giving me the tour. If they made MTV Cribs in West Africa this is the part where he’d sweep in and say something faintly embarassing like: ‘This is where the magic happens’, but instead he just laughs and tells me it’s actually only a guest room, and the oversized bed is “just to be a little bit exotic.”
We’re here for Blues Du Fleuve, Baaba’s annual celebration of music drawn from the four countries connected by the Senegal river: Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal itself. The festival opens with Baaba arriving on a multicoloured fishing boat regatta, oar symbolically aloft, and sees performances from the likes of Orchestra Baobab, Petit Yero and the spellbinding Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali. Baaba makes a cameo appearance during Noura’s set, treating us to a coming together of two of Africa’s finest voices.
This time two years ago, Baaba’s guests here included Johan Hugo Karlberg, of The Very Best, and Mumford & Sons guitarist Winston Marshall. After the festival, they stayed behind to work on songs for what would become Baaba’s new record The Traveller, his eleventh album and first since 2009. It turns out this guest room with the big bed, converted into an impromptu recording studio, really was where the magic happened.