In the 1970s the style that filled Senegal?s airwaves was a fusion of Afro-Cuban elements with various local sounds drawn from Senegal?s diverse cultural traditions. And the undisputed master of this fusion were the legendary Orchestra Baobab.
Baobab exploded onto the Dakar scene in 1970 and immediately became the top local band, famous for their sublime and sophisticated arrangements, lyrical vocals and dazzling guitar solos. For a decade they reigned supreme, recruiting some of the finest musicians from around the country, especially the south ? as well as from further afield in West Africa, making them one of Senegal?s most cosmopolitan and versatile bands.
There were two qualities that set them apart from most other groups of the period. One was their approach to the Cuban sound, which went far beyond mere imitation. They actually created their own deliciously mellow Cuban-style rhythms in a uniquely Baobab way. Second, while other bands were fusing the Latin tinge with Wolof melodies, this was only one of the regional styles that Baobab drew upon. More important for them were the rolling harmonies and intensely melodic drumming traditions of Casamance (in southern Senegal), where several of the band members had grown up. The combination of Casamance plus Cuba created something completely new and entrancing that was to become Baobab?s trademark.
Their hauntingly beautiful, and rocking songs such as ?Utrus horas,? ?On verra ca,? ?Autorail,? ?Sutukum? and ?Coumba? became all-time great hits in West Africa. They recorded more than 20 albums (on LP format) between 1970 and 1985, several of which re-appeared from time to time on bootleg LPs and cassette ? as was all too often the case in those days. Fortunately for Baobab, however, the UK label World Circuit released (in 1989) a much acclaimed album, aptly titled Pirates Choice, with some tracks the group had first recorded in 1982, opening with the sultry piece ?Utrus horas.? With this, Orchestre Baobab were launched around the world. DJs snapped up the album. Among connoisseurs of West African music, it achieved almost cult status. But too late -?the band had already split up?for the time being, at least?
The band founded in 1970 to animate a new elegant night club just opened in central Dakar, around the corner from the Place de l'Independence and not far from Senegal?s National Assembly. It was meant to be a meeting place for politicians, intelligentsia and wealthy businessmen, so the band needed to have a certain chic. The club owners poached six musicians from their famous rival, the resident Star Band (later to launch Youssou N?Dour) of the Miami Club. This included the two singers Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis, both from Casamance, and the brilliant self-taught guitarist Barthelemy Attisso from Togo. Attisso, who had moved to Dakar to study law, had initially taken up music just as a night job to finance his studies, but it was soon clear that he had a phenomenal talent.
In addition to these three musicians, (all of whom are back in the re-formed band), they recruited the charismatic Wolof griot singer Laye Mboup with his soaring Wolof griot vocals. Other musicians included Latfi Benjeloum, of Moroccan origin, on rhythm guitar, Charlie NDiaye, from Casamance, on bass, Mountage Koite, a Maninka griot from eastern Senegal, on drums, and Issa Cissoko, also a Maninka griot originally from Mali, on saxophone.
The club called itself Baobab, and so did the newly formed band. And under the circumstances, it turned out to be an uncannily appropriate name.
The baobab is one of the most emblematic and majestic trees of the African savannah. It is slow growing and enduring; it lives many hundreds of years, and it is considered sacred ? and therefore is not used for carving or for firewood. If you cut it down it will always grow back, unless you burn the roots for days on end. It?s said that in pre-colonial days, griots used to be buried in the hollow of the giant, grey, gnarled baobab trunk. Perhaps they infused the tree with the spirit of music.
The early 70s were years of optimism and economic growth in Senegal, and there was a flourishing nightclub scene with dozens of bands. The country had gained its independence in 1960 and under the leadership of its first president, the poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, culture was high up on the political agenda. Senghor championed his philosophy of negritude ? a celebration of the African character, in which music played an important role. It had to be both modern ? to suit the mood of independence ? and rooted in local traditions, to mark the identity of the new nation-state. Baobab fit the agenda perfectly and people flocked to the club to hear them.
The young group were an instant success. Their first recordings were huge local hits, like the minor-key ballad ?Ni Diaye.? In those early days the band was tending towards a strongly Wolof sound, thanks to the vocals of Laye Mboup ? ten years ahead of the trend, before Youssou N?Dour and other made it truly fashionable. Tragically, however, Mboup died in a car crash in 1974. The band began moving in a new directions.
Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis, both from non-griot backgrounds, took over as lead vocalists along with Wolof griot Ndiouga Dieng. While other well-known singers such as Thione Seck (whose superb vocals on the Baobab song ?Bamba? are a perennial classic) and Medoune Diallo were brought in on an ad hoc basis. The Wolof element continued as one of their strands, with songs like ?Boul Ma Miin,? while Diallo was the most intensely Cuban-sounding of the singers, with a true sonero voice, even singing in Spanish on such song as ?El son te llama.? But it was Sidibe and Gomis who introduced the sounds of their native Casamance, with all its sensuality and hint of melancholy.
Casamance and the 1980s
Casamance is a very different sonic world to that of Dakar, reflected in its more tropical climate and lush vegetation, and its different ethnicities and languages, each with their own musical styles: Jola, Manjak, Mandinka, Balanta, and Portuguese-Creole, among others. Sidibe and Gomis had been brought up amidst the tuned drum ensembles of the Jola, the dancing balafons of the Balanta, the high-energy gumbe drums of the Creole, the swinging and punchy strumming of the Mandinka kora. Their songs evoked these traditions with the subtlety and grace, with a series of hits such as ?On verra ca,? danced to at clubs and parties up and down the country through the late 70s.
The sounds of Casamance were diverse in themselves and diversity became the trademark of Baobab. The cement that held all this together was the crystal-clear guitar of Attisso, who fearlessly runs the entire fretboard, sometimes in chords, sometimes in brilliant solo lines, always with staggering precision and musicality. He composed and arranged for the band, giving their music structure and pace. Above all, he gave them groove. Few other West African bands can match Baobab for their sheer groove.
But by the early 80s times were changing and there was a definite mood swing in Senegal. In 1981 a new president, Abdou Diouf, was inaugurated and there was a new sound in the nightclubs, the sound of Wolof mbalax. Suits and ties were being abandoned for boubous, and Cuban rhythms and pachanga were exchanged for adaptations of the sabar street dances. Youssou N?Dour was the young rising star, and he introduced the frenetic sabar and tama drums into his band, together with rap, and influences from jazz and soul.
The Baobab club had closed down in 1979 and the band had moved on to new locations. But their mellow style was overtaken by the craze for mbalax and they found themselves with dwindling audiences. To make matters worse, fighting had broken out in Casamance. There was a new political movement that advocated Casamance?s cessation from Senegal, and as it gathered momentum there was intense guerrilla warfare in the region. Rudy Gomis?s haunting song, ?Utrus Horas,? recorded in 1982, with its angular minor-key melody and boding lyrics, turned out to be a grim prophesy of war ? much to his distress, since he later lost several family members in the fighting.
One by one, members of the band left, either to form their own groups, or in the case of guitarist extraordinaire Barthelemy Attisso, to return to his native Togo and take up his original profession as lawyer. He put down his guitar and didn?t touch it for fifteen years. By 1987 the band had completely broken up ? or so it seemed?
The Band Regroups and Records a New Album
In 2001 Nick Gold, director of World Circuit, decided to reissue once again the album Pirates Choice, this time with some previously unreleased material from the same 1982 sessions. Baobab had unwittingly played an important role in the fortunes of World Circuit. It was Baobab?s mellow arrangements of Cuba?s dance rhythms that had first inspired Gold to research Cuban music, leading eventually to the most successful ever world music album, the Buena Vista Social Club. Gold was already collaborating with Youssou N?Dour on several other Senegalese projects and so he enlisted N?Dour?s support for an Orchestre Baobab reunion concert.
N?Dour supported the idea wholeheartedly. As a young singer he had greatly admired Baobab and he felt the time was right to re-introduce them to Senegalese audiences. ?They had such a clean sound, and they were pan-African. We?re read for this to come back. We?ve put up barriers in our music,? he comments, referring to the current trend for an almost entirely Wolof sound at the expense of Senegal?s other musical traditions, ?and we have to bring the barriers down. All the young kids, they understand now just how important those years, the 70s, were for their music, so they?re read to listen.?
It didn?t take much persuasion to get the core members of Baobab back together again for a reunion concert at London?s Barbican Centre in May 2001. Attisso dug his guitar out of the cupboard in Togo, went to Dakar and began working around the clock to recapture his technique. Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis had remained in touch, and sounded like they had never been apart. Cherno Koite, sax player and brother of drummer Mountaga, ex-Super Etoile, was enlisted.
Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis, and Ndiouga Dieng, the original singers, were joined by a fourth singer, the young Wolof griot Assane Mboup, with his inspirational high-pitched voice sounding uncannily like that of the late Laye Mboup. And though Baobab hadn?t played together for all those years, they proved that they were still one of the great live bands of West Africa. Their music sounds as powerful as ever, a refreshing take on Senegal?s cultural diversity, driven by the mesmerizing solos of Attisso, who must be rated as one of Africa?s finest guitarists.
In November 2001 Baobab, by now in tip-top form after a successful autumn tour of Europe, recorded an entirely new album in the Livingstone Studios in north London. Recorded by Gerry Boys, and produced by Nick Gold and Youssou N?Dour, it had a totally live feel. The album includes some stunning new material, like the song ?Ndongo Daara? by Assane Mboup, as well as some old favorites, among them the enchanting ?On verra ca,? with sumptuous vocals from Balla Sidibe. Attisso redoes his warm-hearted Cuban dance track ?Nawe? (?That?s right?) sung in his own language, Mina, with an inimitable guitar solo.
The album includes several special guests. Issa Cissoko joins Cherno Koite, to provide full-blooded and explosive saxophones. Medoune Diallo sings a new version of the gorgeous Cuban number ?El son te llama.? And for a retake of the ballad ?Utrus Horas,? they?re joined by none other than Cuban superstar Ibrahim Ferrer as well as Youssou N?Dour himself.
And so the ancient tree breaths a renewed spirit back into Senegalese music ? with some of the most sublime dance grooves of West Africa.
Edited from a text by Lucy Duran
Dexter Johnson and Super star de Dakar (Dakar Sound 2003988)
Baobao-N'Wolof (Dakar Sound 2003620)
Pirates Choice (World Circuit WCDO63)
Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit WCDO64)