This much I know: Baaba Maal

The musician, 58, on Senegal, smoking and following your dream

My mother was a wise woman. She used to tell me to wake up every morning unafraid of life – she told me that life can be hard but goodness always prevails.

I realised I had a voice at 10. I sang at a ceremony in my hometown and everyone turned to listen. I knew then that my life would be about entertaining people.

Music has taken me everywhere. My father was a soldier who fought in the Second World War. We were close, but he was disappointed when I chose not to join the military – he used to say that I was a coward who would never see the world. I've proved to him through my career that he was wrong.

My son changed me in ways I didn't think possible. I wanted so much to have him that when he arrived I didn't want to share him with his mother – I wanted to keep him for myself, to pass on all the love and music I had inside me.

I still live in Senegal, in my little hometown. When I go back I disappear into my community and I become just one of them, and that makes me feel good.

I stopped smoking six years ago. It was just one day – boom! Before that, I felt like cigarettes owned me. Running around a whole city looking for a cigarette at 5am is not how I wanted to be. Nothing was going to catch me.

Determination and patience are the two most important qualities to have. Fortunately, I have both in abundance.

Love is what everyone is looking for. It's difficult to meet a woman who can deal with going out with a musician. I live a nomadic lifestyle.

Fela Kuti is someone I admire. He is the one who opened our eyes and our minds to take African music and play it to a global audience. He showed the world the Africa we know, not the Africa that people in the west imagine.

My dream is to see a healthy African continent. I would like to see Africa be at the same level as Europe or North America, to be called the developed world. African leaders need to follow the maturity of the people. Because of the internet, television and newspapers, because people are now travelling and going back with experiences, African people want to see changes.

My son is my fashion adviser. He keeps an eye on what I plan to wear on stage.

There's a lot of restrictions outside of Africa. When I first went to Paris at 20, I was very surprised by the amount of rules there were. In Africa you are allowed to talk where you want to talk; if you want to play music in the night, you pick up your instrument and play, and people will run and come and listen. Here people will knock on your door and say you're making too much noise.

You have to dream big. When success started to happen to me, I didn't think it was possible to come as far as I have. I've gone from my tiny town to performing at the Hollywood Bowl. It's been a long journey.

Baaba Maal is performing on the Africa stage at BT River of Music on 21 and 22 July, and curating and performing at Southbank Centre's Africa Utopia festival throughout July


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

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