Orchestra Baobab — Senegal’s Resurrection
Has world music finally caught up with Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab?
May 1, 2004
In 1970, Dakar was a thriving African capital in a country celebrating its first decade of independence. It also hosted a dazzling music scene, which mixed the traditional music of the country’s disparate regions with music from a world away – namely, Cuba.
Dakar is a seaport, and Cuban music was one of the arrivals on the docks of this West Africa city. Shortly after World War II, music from the Caribbean became a favored sound in Senegal — and local musicians rushed to mimic the sound.
Among these musicians was a group known as the Star Band. This group played at the famous Miami club in Dakar. At first, they simply imitated the Cuban sounds that came across the ocean.
But gradually, they began to adapt those rhythms and melodies to their own native sounds and traditions, particularly the Wolof language.
The Star Band proved to be the origination point for Orchestra Baobab. In 1970, a group of prominent Senegalese politicians opened a new club — the Baobab — near the center of the city and the Senegal National Assembly.
They wanted the club to be “the place” for powerful and wealthy citizens of Dakar to gather. But they needed a house band to play at the club.
The new club’s owners lured a number of prominent musicians from the Miami club. Among these new musicians were guitarist Barthelemy Attisso and singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe. The new group was christened “Orchestra Baobab” — and they quickly rose to national prominence.
Not only did Baobab find a sublime mix of Cuban and traditional Wolof sounds, but the band also broadened its horizons to include other Senegalese sounds.
As the biography of the band found on their website observes, “while other bands were fusing the the Latin tinge with Wolof melodies, this was only one of the regional styles that Baobab drew upon.”
Most notably, the biography continues, the band integrated “the rolling harmonies and intensely melodic drumming traditions of Casamance (in southern Senegal), where several of the band members had grown up” into their music.
The Casamance sound was an even more compatible match with the Cuban rhythms that formed the foundation of the band’s sound.
This musical formula made Baobab one of the most successful West African groups well into the early 1980s — even after the Baobab Club itself closed down and the harder-edged music of Youssou N’Dour displaced the Baobab sound in African record shops.
The magical music created by Orchestra Baobab was captured on a 1982 recording that was made by the band at the height of its creative powers. These recordings — first released on cassette in Africa, and eventually released as a “bootleg” recording in France — came to be known as Pirate’s Choice.
The record became a much-sought after classic at that time and after its limited release on CD a few years later.
In the meantime, Orchestra Baobab broke up in 1987, with its members going their separate ways. It was not until a new release of the original Pirate’s Choice in 2001 that the band was resurrected.
In the newly-warm climate of world music, the Baobab sound not only sounded fresh, but it also seemed to be a direct predecessor to subsequent blends of African and Cuban music.
The ecstatic reception that greeted the new version of Pirate’s Choice created a demand for the band to reunite. They did so in London in 2001.To the delight of their fans, they also recorded a brand new record, Specialist in All Styles, that very same year.
The new record picks up almost precisely where Pirate’s Choice left off, mixing those Cuban-influenced sounds of their early days with many other African styles. To emphasize those roots, Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer makes a special appearance on “Hommage a Tonton Ferrer” — and the band covers the Cuban song “El Son Te Llama.”
Yet Specialist in All Styles also shows that Baobab still ranges far and wide on their native continent for sounds and visions. “Gnawoe” (“It’s True”) has influences that extend from Senegal to Togo to Ghana. “Sutukun” is a nod to the Mandinka sound of Senegal.
In much of the music world, terms like “sampling” and “file sharing” represent stealing. But for Orchestra Baobab, such sharing enriches their sound. In fact, the piracy of their music — in the illegal bootleg copies of Pirate’s Choice — was the force that brought the band back together to start a new chapter of their musical career. All listeners are the richer for that fortuitous theft.
Editor and writer Richard Byrne lives in Washington, DC. He is an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. His writing has been published in the The Guardian, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The American Prospect and on Time magazine’s web site. He was also a contributing writer for New York Press and the Boston […]