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April 1, 2004



photo/heading Baaba MaalMOST PEOPLE SEE SENEGALESE SUPERSTAR BAABA MAAL [photo at left] as some sort of musical ambassador, a singer backed by a powerfully rhythmic band, swirling around the stage in majestic robes. Few realize that he is in fact an emissary, representing the United Nations Development Program reaching out to youth in his homeland and elsewhere, and doing what he can in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

"My career has given me an opportunity, especially in the continent of Africa, one that I can use to link people to the organizations who are working doing positive things for Africa, and also to use the music and the musicians around me to make communication between young people and the leaders of the world," he explained when I caught up with him between dates on his American tour.

In July 2003 Maal and other African musicians and officials participated in UNDP's Africa 2015 initiative. "In this project Africa 2015, we ask the young people how they expect to see the world in the next 15 years, to have a voice in the plans," he said. "We want to fight against the poverty, to at least reduce it by half on the continent.

"We have had two meeting in Dakar [Senegal]; Youssou [Ndour] was there; Manu Dibango was there. We got a call from Angelique Kidjo saying she is inside. The plan will take years: We are going to put out songs, put on festivals where we can all play together. We want to push it forward so that people will get together, maybe even without music or singing, just to talk to them. We can use the fact that we are popular to be able to talk about the issues of the millennium.

"The music is like a key opening doors; the musicians, all of us, can help, music can help change things. In my country we talk about the power of words. The words that you sing can change the world. When you have the melody, when you have the harmony, when you have the beat, you have even more power."

One of the major problems in Africa today is the rising tide of HIV/AIDS. "That's the first thing we are starting with. We want to open the ears and eyes of the world to what's happening in Africa and outside of the continent to see what we can do, to see how we can get more help for people who already have it and how to let people understand how to take care of themselves and take care of the people who are sick and give them support. You must understand, I am just the emissary; there are a lot of people working with me in the program."

The truth is, the

fight against AIDS in Africa is not exactly going well.

"They have a lot of very noble ideas, but it's not perfect," Maal conceded. "The leaders want to do something for their countries; for example in Senegal, my president [Abdoulaye Wade] has been doing whatever is possible to support the people who have the disease there, but we need more. We can't do it all ourselves. The people who make the medicine, they are not from Africa, so it's not easy to buy it. It's very expensive."

President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address included a call for $15 billion in spending on AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean spread over five years, but his budget appeals haven't come anywhere near that. According to a report in The New York Times, Bush's most recent request for a donation to the Global Fund was only $200 million, even though Congress authorized $550 million. And while generic drugs have been approved by the World Health Organization and used in several African countries, the Bush administration has only paid for medicines that are still under patent.

International pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Boehringer-Ingelheim hold the patents on the antiretroviral medicine currently favored for AIDS treatment, patented drugs that cost twice as much as generics.

"I think maybe people should talk to the companies; maybe the United Nations should talk to them, because they seem not to understand how big the disease is in some countries," said Maal. "In some families it's just one person who's going to work getting the money to support the family. When you are in a family where 10 people have the disease, how can you even afford something like $200 or $300 [the per-person price range for generic antiretroviral treatment for a year] and then pay for food, or for school? It's not possible. In some places, if you [can't afford the medicine] it's condemnation, you know, like a death sentence. I think it's important that people know that."

Maal said his current acoustic tour is intended in part to allow for more direct contact with his audience. "I'm not coming with a big electric band because I want to sing more about these problems, and also to talk about the issue of the millennium, to talk about the poverty.

"HIV/AIDS, war, strife in Africa, all these things come from poverty, from the lack of education and equality between people, man and woman. These are the issues of the millennium and I want to talk about them before I sing or make people dance. I want people to listen, to see what they can do, and not just Africans, or Africans living outside the continent, also people who are friends of Africa, people who love our music, our culture. Everyone can do something. As a musician I can sing about it. You, as a writer, can write about it. Anyone can talk about it. We all must work together if we want change."


CenterArts presents an evening with Baaba Maal and his band, Sunday, April 4, at 8 p.m. in HSU's Van Duzer Theatre. Tickets are $35, $30 for seniors, $25 for HSU students. Call 826-3928 for details. For more on UNDP's Africa 2015, go to

Bob Doran



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