In the smart Point E district of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, a cosy outdoor restaurant with the ghastly name Just 4U has become a key fixture of the west-African music circuit. Cheikh Lo has a weekly residency, local hip-hop trio Daara J make regular appearances, and the country's two superstars, Youssou N'Dour and Baaba Maal, made a historic appearance together on the venue's little stage this summer. And it is here, at midnight every Saturday, that the venue is home to another west-African music legend - nearly four decades since they first got together and six years on from their dramatic reunion, following a 16-year split.
On a good night, Orchestra Baobab are still one of the most joyous, rousing bands on the continent, and a special show at Just 4U to mark the launch of their first studio album in five years provides further evidence that the gentlemen of Dakar are not finished yet. There are 11 band members on stage, mostly dressed in brightly coloured shirts, and augmented by friends playing extra percussion and brass. They play for three hours but sound as if they could have continued until dawn, constantly changing styles in a cheerfully sophisticated, rhythmic and melodic show that features their full array of lead singers (they have five to call on) and backing work that matches congas, timbales and drums with brass and the remarkable guitar work of Baobab's founder member and chef d'orchestre, the quiet and bespectacled Barthelemy Attisso.
"We have had the same style since 1970," Attisso, 62, says before the show. "We were the first band to mix traditional music with modern dance styles. We don't want to change our style or we would lose our identity." Rudy Gomis, the easy-going 60-year-old singer, who also joined Baobab at the start of their career, says the fundamental sound has never changed. "It's a salad," he explains, "a mixture of Cuban songs and influences from Senegalese griots [traditional hereditary singers], and from the Congo, Nigeria, France and America, played by a Pan-African band with members from Senegal, Togo, Morocco and Guinea."
That old Baobab formula is still intact, and the band has survived - with substantially the same lineup they started with - because they have lost neither their enthusiasm nor the element of surprise in their songs. Watch them on stage or listen to the new material or reworked old favourites on the new album, and you can hear not just African and Cuban influences but echoes of everything from ska to jazz and country. This is thanks largely to the arrangements and inventive instrumental work of Attisso, perhaps the most unlikely guitar hero in Africa, simply because this is not his full-time job.
In a miracle of time management, Attisso combines his key role in Orchestra Baobab with his practice as a commercial lawyer, based not in Senegal but in Togo, which is not even a neighbouring country in west Africa. Even now, he only joins the band "for tours or for major events like this, so I spend about half my time with Baobab".
Attisso first arrived in Dakar in 1966 to study law, "but I found I needed money to pay the law school, so I had to find a night job. I thought of becoming a concierge, a bouncer at a bar or a cashier at a club, but I thought that would be boring, so I decided to become a musician." He spent two years learning the guitar and listening to the Congolese guitarist Doctor Nico, Cuban piano styles, Django Reinhardt, BB King, Wes Montgomery and Carlos Santana. These, he says, are still the only records he plays, "because I'm still learning from them".
By 1968, he was working in the celebrated Star Band of Dakar's Club Miami, alongside singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe, who would both later be invited to join him in a new venture, Orchestra Baobab. The group was the house band of Club Baobab, a basement nightclub owned by the minister of finance, who just happened to be the younger brother of Leopold Senghor, the Senegalese president. Senghor's "negritude" policy included the promotion of African music in his newly independent state and Orchestra Baobab were among its beneficiaries. The band remained at Club Baobab for seven years, playing four nights a week to a sophisticated clientele that often included the president and his guests, developing their style of mixing current hits and popular foreign favourites with the music of the Senegalese griots. In the process, Orchestra Baobab became the best-loved band in Senegal, outgrowing even the fashionable Club Baobab. "We wanted more money and bigger places to play," said Gomis. "And we were frustrated when our friends couldn't get in to Baobab see us, while political figures could."
At their height, they were playing stadiums across the country, but when mbalax, the percussive street style popularised by Youssou N'Dour, swept Senegal Orchestra Baobab's gentle, melodic style suddenly fell out of fashion. By 1985, they were forced out of business. "It was good for us," claims Gomis now, "because the incredible success had gone to the heads of some of our musicians. But I never thought we would get together again." Gomis went on to develop a solo career, while also working as a language teacher; Attisso returned to the law. "I thought it was all over, so I simply parked my guitar," he says. "I occasionally listened to the old music with nostalgia, but I never had time to keep practising."
That could well have been that, if western audiences had not started to take an interest in African music during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, a classic Baobab album, Pirates Choice, was rereleased in Britain, and in the same year the band was invited to reform for a special concert at the Barbican. It was, Attisso says, a frightening request. The lawyer had not picked up a guitar for 16 years and had forgotten how to play. "I told my wife that I had lost my touch but that my band members needed me," he recalls. "She replied that I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it, and so every night after work I would practise until 2am, or right through the night, until I could play again." Orchestra Baobab were reborn, and N'Dour, the man who helped put them out of business, has proved to be a massive help in their revival. Along with World Circuit's Nick Gold, he co-produced their 2002 comeback album Specialist in All Styles, and he makes a rousing appearance on the new album, Made in Dakar, which was recorded in his Xippi studio.
Mbalax is still hugely popular in Senegal, but Orchestra Baobab have found a new audience, both back home and in the west. "Music is like fashion," says Gomis. "It comes and goes. The world stopped for us when the band stopped, but now the world is moving again."
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