Baaba Maal: 'It will be a challenge for us all to live together'

The Senegalese star on his hopes for the Africa Express tour, featuring 80 musicians on one train as it makes a string of stops across the UK

Senegalese singer Baaba Maal has long been one of Africa's most critically acclaimed and well-known musicians. He hosted Africa Utopia at the Southbank this summer and recently became one of Oxfam's global ambassadors.

Africa Express has achieved a lot over the past six years, and you were one of the first artists to get involved.

I remember being backstage at Glastonbury before the first Africa Express gig I did [in 2007]. It's great, the impact it's had. All the trips to Africa, and all the musicians and others who have come together, from Franz Ferdinand to Rio Ferdinand. It's done really well, and that's down to everyone who is a part of it.

What makes Africa Express unique for you?

There's a real mix of young and old musicians, and they all come together in a way that is slightly separate to the music business. Of course they all want to have a good time, but they also want to learn from each other.

How important is it to make sure there is a good mix of stars like yourself and up-and-coming talent?

If you're a new talent, you will appreciate the chance to learn from people who have more experience, and if you have already had some success then you always need to put your feet back on the ground.

What's the profile of Africa Express like back in Dakar?

Well, people who follow the career of someone like me or Amadou and Mariam will look on the internet and follow everything we do, so they know about it. But the next step would be to do more in different parts of Africa. When we went to Lagos to do the gig outside Femi Kuti's Afrika Shrine [in 2008, as part of the Felabration festival], most of the people who came to the gigs didn't know about Africa Express – but at the end of the trip they all knew about it.

How important are the live shows to spreading the word?

The big gigs are important for visibility but smaller gigs are important too. When we went to Lagos we would do impromptu shows where we'd meet people, and those small gigs are crucial because that makes people feel close to the project.

Are you looking forward to the Africa Express train tour of the UK?

I like trains – I much prefer to use the Eurostar than to fly – but I haven't travelled in the UK much by train. It's a crazy project, to have so many people travelling all together on the train, but exciting. There won't be the same comforts that some are used to, like big hotels, and it will be a challenge for us all to live together, but it's great. I'll be playing some classic songs like African Woman but also looking forward to playing alongside people like Kano and some of the young hip-hop musicians.

What would you like to see Africa Express do next?

I want to see DVDs and books on Africa Express go all round the world. I know we have the internet but not everybody is connected. It's a project that brings people together and it should be known about everywhere.


Interview by Luke Bainbridge

The GuardianTramp

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