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World Music Legends

Orchestra Baobab

By Banning Eyre
Published October 9, 2005

Afropop

Since the meteoric success of the Buena Vista Social Club, world music producers have been keen to resuscitate defunct, classic bands and give them a second life. In Africa alone, recent efforts have resulted in the reunion of some of the early stars of Congo music in Kinshasa, and also the revival of the great independence-era Guinean dance band, Bembeya Jazz. Another such effort that bore fruit: Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab—formed in 1970 and officially disbanded in 1987—now rides again, with most of its key players in place. The “new” Baobab debuted dramatically in London in May 2001, and by year’s end, the musicians had recorded their first new album in more than 20 years.

Baobab started out in post-colonial Senegal’s most cosmopolitan milieu. They were chosen as the house band for the then-new Baobab nightclub in central Dakar. The club catered to the business and government elite, and the band was expected to deliver a refined array of the day’s popular international music styles. Baobab’s earliest recordings, available on Baobab-N’Wolof (Dakar Sound 1998), mostly sound like guitar-driven Afro-Cuban grooves with beautifully elastic Wolof vocals overlaid. The band would soon become champions of varieté, that all-inclusive musical genre that lets African urbanites feel connected to the world.

But from the start with Baobab, there were signs of remarkable inventiveness. On the slow, incendiary, 1971 track “N’Diaye,” guitarist Barthelemy Attisso soars into a downright psychedelic guitar solo that has nothing to do with Cuba or any West African tradition. Attisso’s performance is particularly impressive when you consider that he had first picked up a guitar only five years earlier, after failing to get a grant to continue his law studies.

“N’Diaye” turned Baobab into overnight celebrities, and one of the most glorious bands in West African musical history was off and running. Baobab’s music brimmed with local color and pride in Senegal’s emerging national identity, but it differed from the music of contemporaneous bands like Bembeya Jazz, or the Super Rail Band in Mali. There wasn’t the same emphasis on reinventing African traditional music as modern electric pop. For Senegal, that would come later with the emergence of mbalax, the pneumatic pop style rooted in Wolof sabar percussion and championed by Youssou N’Dour.

When the reunited Orchestra Baobab faced journalists at a WOMEX conference in Rotterdam, guitarist Latfi Benjaloum was emphatic in distancing Baobab from the mbalax phenomenon. “These musicians have no history of playing mbalax,” he insisted. “Some have played mbalax to make money, because it is the vogue in Senegal, but we all come from different musical circles.”

Onstage at WOMEX, the sultry African salsa of Baobab’s vintage recordings sprang pristine from the voices and instruments of these 50-something gentlemen in charcoal gray suits and white button-down shirts. It was clear they had

Recommended Recordings

 

Baobab N’Wolof (Dakar Sound, 1998)

Pirate’s Choice (Nonesuch)

Specialist In All Styles (Nonesuch)