Asked about what might be expected on the new album by Orchestra Baobab, the Senegalese group’s 62-year-old guitarist Barthelemy Attisso pointed out that his band had been playing in the same style since 1970. The likelihood of them changing at this point was not great. As he put it: “We don’t want to change our style or we would lose our identity.”
If Attisso was ever going to cater to changing tastes, he would have done it 25 years ago, when his group’s hybrid of Nigerian high life, Cuban rhythms and B. B. King steals were usurped by the percussive street music known as mbalax. If mbalax was Senegal’s punk, Youssou N’Dour was its Joe Strummer. N’Dour became a star; Attisso put down his guitar and became a lawyer for 14 years.
Orchestra Baobab’s music was always that of the status quo. But in the 1970s, Senegal had a cool status quo. Leopold Senghor, the President, was a poet who championed a progressive strain of Afrocentricity called “Negritude” and Orchestra Baobab were his favourite emissaries of it – so much so that the group had a club built for them.
Made in Dakar might indeed have been made in Dakar, but for musical provenance, you’d need a box of pins to represent these songs on a map. Such is the brassy Cuban uplift of Ami Kita Bay that the song doesn’t need to do much other than repeat its main refrain. In Sibam Medoune Diallo’s vibrato pinballs from one minor chord to another and still sounds like great party music. By contrast, abetted by a sad saxophone, the melancholia of Aline seems connected to the Cabo Verdean blues of Cesarea Evora.
With five vocalists, it’s not always possible to discern who you’re listening to. But, on a re-recording of the group’s 1974 hit Nijaay – a song originally written and sung by the group’s late singer Laye Mboup – there’s no mistaking the voice of a guesting N’Dour. His presence seems significant. During Orchestra Baobab’s dormant years, N’Dour westernised his sound. But as the success of artists such as Tinariwen confirms, we Westerners never wanted our African music to sound like Elton John in Lion King mode. We wanted a joyful racket made in some remote club that we might never get to – the Club Baobab perhaps. Judging by the intensity of his performance, maybe he did too.
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