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Why Africa needs to dance to its own tune

Musician Baaba Maal wants more of Africa's own artists at Live8 and for its own people to help Make Poverty History.

Baaba Maal, the man known as the 'Nightingale' for his high, clear singing voice is now using those lungs to put the western world right about Africa. Live8 and its predecessor Live Aid made legends out of white musicians who sang about a continent some of them had never visited.

Baaba Maal, superstar in West Africa, and feted in the west for his blend of Afro-pop and traditional music, is the real thing. He was born 52 years ago in Senegal to the Fulani people, the largest nomadic group in West Africa, the son of a fisherman father and a music-loving mother.

"My mother used songs she composed herself to educate and instil in me the value of intelligent and thoughtful lyrics" he told me, as he waited to go on stage to play a set at the Edinburgh Make Poverty History rally.

Baaba's thoughts on his homeland have been given much airtime recently. In the UK there has been a huge amount of coverage in the run up to the G8 but it appears that TV producers struggle to find African pundits.

That might explain why Baaba has been working overtime. The theme of his many media appearances has been African self-sufficiency. On three separate occasions he quoted the Chinese proverb ‘Give me a fish and I will eat for a day, teach me to fish and I will eat forever'. The was first on BBC's Newsnight, then when he kicked off the Make Poverty History March, and later that day when he addressed a room full of journalists.

Perhaps it was the dearth of African musicians in the giant western-led push against poverty Baaba Maal had in mind when he called on African countries to look beyond aid.

As a Ugandan journalist covering the Live8 events I couldn't help but be struck by the whiteness of the whole thing – white bands, white t-shirts, white banners and of course, a largely white media tent. Baaba was clearly irked that African musicians had, with the exception of the Africa Calling concert at Eden, been left outside the fence.

"The cause is African. The Live8 concert should have had many more African musicians because it is all about poverty in Africa. If you don't include African musicians in the fight against poverty, how can you help Africa build its culture which is key to development?" he said.

Nor had that fact escaped other people's notice. When the Live8 line-up was announced and revealed to be overwhelmingly white, the organisers came under pressure to include more African acts.

It was reported that Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, wrote to the Live8 concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith to ask why the 'articulate' Baaba Maal hadn't been invited to play at the London event.

Instead Baaba has been busy articulating his belief that culture is key to empowering Africans. He pointed out that it is possible for musical collaboration to fight poverty closer to home.

Last year he joined an all-African supergroup, which included fellow Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, as well as names less familiar in the west such as Koffi Olomide from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Achien'g Abura from Kenya.

Their single, entitled ‘We are the drums', was released to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS as part of the UN's campaign to reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The 18 artists called on each person in Africa to 'act as a tam-tam drum', passing on the message about fighting HIV to those who hadn't yet heard it, and Baaba Maal is now calling for the single to be released more widely across Africa.

It chimed well with Maal's own beliefs that the music which made him famous belongs to the whole of African culture. "We have a lot of hope and energy. African musicians should be active on the African front because Africa is a beautiful continent" he said. Using his clear voice to speak up for that beautiful continent is Maal's way of saying thank you.

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07/04/2005

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