Orchestra Baobab exists as an exquisite coda to a golden era of West African music. From 1970 to 1987, these self-characterized "specialists in all styles" performed the Cuban-flavored, pan-African dance music that their audiences‹in Dakar, Senegal‹expected from a Senegalized Cuban orchestra, while at the same time developing a distinctive signature sound of emotional depth and ineffable rhythmic cool. When the bottom eventually dropped out of Orchestra Baobab's market, the group was inactive for nearly a decade and a half, only to emerge even stronger and sweeter in 2001. Its current tour brings Baobab to Zankel Hall on March 17.
Thirty-five years ago, the luxurious Baobab nightclub in Dakar poached its house band from the renowned Miami Club's Star Band, the city's preeminent combo until then. The Star Band performed a variety of dance styles including salsa, cha-cha, bolero, rumba, and even waltzes, all under the strict supervision of club owner Ibra Kassé. "We were stolen away," says lead guitarist Barthélemy Attisso. "The Baobab's owners contacted us discreetly and offered higher salaries than the Miami was paying. Four of us accepted and moved in less than a week."
Latin music had been ubiquitous in West Africa during the 1960s, and Orchestra Baobab quickly developed a unique and seductively languid sound that translated Arsenio Rodrigues's Cuban rumba and Dominican Republic flutist Johnny Pacheco's pachanga into local languages. "We incorporated soul music, rhythm and blues, reggae, and even rock music's wah-wah pedal," says Attisso. The band voraciously learned everything that the club's DJ was spinning, forcing the club owner to constantly purchase new records.
Baobab released some 20 albums between 1970 and 1982, and the group also toured across Africa. One member, Laye Mboup, died in 1974 but the band soldiered on and reached a peak of popularity toward the end of the decade.
But competition soon arose. In 1978 a charismatic singer with a high, wildly expressive voice named Youssou N'Dour joined the Miami Club's Star Band. After forming his own group, Super Étoile de Dakar, N'Dour would become Africa's first real pop star and would virtually complete the ongoing Africanization of Cuban-style pop by electrifying traditional instruments and performing a youthful, hyperkinetic take on the traditional Wolof rhythm known as mbalax.
Orchestra Baobab tried to hang on to its core audience during this time, even going so far as to record a pair of mbalax-tinged albums themselves. Attisso recalls the last few years of the earlier band's existence ruefully but frankly. "We lost our customers little by little and became increasingly discouraged. We included mbalax in a light way in our music, but we wanted to maintain our own style and not follow the fashion. And our customers belonged to the bourgeois class and didn't like mbalax that much because of its drums and volume."
Before calling it quits, though, Baobab's founders recorded the albums Senegambie and Ngalam under the name Baobab Guygui 82 de Dakar. These transcendent four-track recordings captured the band at its most deliciously understated and spacious. Attisso's masterly guitar solos, as thoughtfully sculpted as Lester Young sax breaks, became the stuff of bootlegged legend. But having seen the writing on the wall, Attisso left the band that year and pursued his original avocation, law. Baobab continued with new musicians for several years under Sidibe's leadership before it folded.
Then, in 2001, British producer Nick Gold released the group's 1982 albums as the double-CD set Pirates Choice on his World Circuit label. If Gold sensed that the album might appeal to an international audience with the same combination of undeniable charm and quality as his 1997 gold mine, The Buena Vista Social Club, whose masterful grooves Pirates Choice echoes and complements, he was correct. With the success of that double album, Gold suggested to Sidibe that he re-form the band.
But Baobab wouldn't have been Baobab without Barthélemy Attisso, so Sidibe called his former bandmate. "I said yes immediately when Balla Sidibe called," says Attisso. "But when I first picked up the guitar, it seemed to say, 'I don't know you anymore.' I couldn't get anything I wanted out of it. But my wife encouraged me, and so every day after work I went home, had dinner, and practiced guitar. I went through our whole repertoire, piece after piece. It was very difficult and I almost gave up, but it all came back after two or three months. When I got to Dakar, it was as though time had stopped. Everyone had kept their youth and everything seemed possible once again."
After touring Europe, the reunited Baobab recorded the 2002 album Specialist in All Styles (available on Nonesuch Records), which was co-produced by none other than Youssou N'Dour (who guests on "Hommage à Tonton Ferrer" alongside Buena Vista Social Club singer Ibrahim Ferrer). Little has changed other than the addition of Wolof griot Assane Mboup, who sounds remarkably like his namesake, the late Laye Mboup. The band still plays dance music, to be sure, but over time Baobab's music has clearly ripened into classic African music‹African classical music without a whiff of nostalgia, sophisticated orchestral sounds from the root source of all popular music.
Richard Gehr writes about international music for the Village Voice, Tracks, Blender, and AARP: The Magazine.