Beginning in the '40s, Cuban music made the reverse migration back to West Africa, from whence had come the slaves and the rhythmic sensibility that had helped give rise to the son and the rumba in the first place. The Africans not only "got" the Cuban style, they recognized it as kin. Owing to the vicissitudes of European imperialism, the Senegalese spoke French. Spanish was just a bunch of syllables to be sung phonetically, but that proved no great obstacle. Soon enough, Senegal boasted its own roster of crackerjack Cuban-style combos, with the Orchestra Baobab, an all-star group that came together at Dakar's Club Baobab in 1970, first among them.
In a post-colonial Africa increasingly in love with the ideals of African-ness, the Orchestra Baobab were successfully able to modify the Cuban template, adding percussion elements from the Casamance region in the south and "praise songs" from the Wolof country in the north. These tribal tales of moral advice and uplift were voiced in eerie, impassioned timbres that had never graced Cuba's Orquesta Aragon or the Benny More band. By the mid-'80s, it was over. The Orchestra Baobab was "old school," replaced by a new generation of Afro-Pop superstars like Youssou 'Dour and Baaba Maal playing in a jumpy six-beat Wolof-rock hybrid called mbalax. As indebted to Western pop and rock as heavily as Baobab was to Cuba, 'Dour and Maal nevertheless captured the imagination of Senegal and a large and emerging Western World Music audience. They were and are revered as latter-day griots, traditional storytellers, in a way that was beyond the Baobab group in their chinos and sport shirts.
In this story, musical evolution never proceeds in a straight line; everything bends back to the starting point. Nick Gold, the World Circuit records chief who did his part to usher in the '80s craze for West African World Music, fell in love with traditional Cuban music through some old recordings of the Orchestra Baobab. Suitably inspired, he rounded up a bunch of overlooked, long-in-the-tooth Cuban musicians, came up with a fictional pedigree (in some parallel universe, they might have played together in a real but long-defunct Havana nightclub) and launched what became the Buena Vista Social Club juggernaut, ushering in a second, Cuban-centric World Music wave. Orchestra Baobab made for an ideal follow-up. Its members, after all, had actually lived the Buena Vista story line, i.e. the brilliant, discarded band whose fortunes rose and fell with a legendary nightclub that gave them their name.
Last year's reissue of some choice '82 tracks, the double-CD Pirates Choice (World Circuit/Nonesuch) found an audience, paving the way for Specialist In All Styles, a full-dress rehabilitation and reintroduction of the band that, after having fallen apart completely in 1987, is now up and running as a touring unit — and a shockingly good one, based on the evidence of this record. Key members of the original band are back, among them: Wolof praise singer Ndiouga Dieng and two singers, Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis, who bring a harmonic sensibility peculiar to their Casamance region. Or so the ethno-musicologists tell me. But even the innocent Western ear will pick out Issa Cissokho, a saxophonist from the James Brown school of muscular funk, and the revelatory electric guitarist Barthelemy Attisso who emerged from a 15-year musical retirement to offer up immaculate single-note solo runs that, depending on the tune, can recall Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, or the Ventures.
|No need to rub your eyes - this photo is an old one of the original Orchestra Baobab.|
Just in case you missed the Buena Vista connection, World Circuit saw fit to drop BV crooner Ibrahim Ferrer into one improvised tune, dubbed "Hommage A Tonton Ferrer." Such is the relaxed, men-of-a-certain-age swagger of the Orchestra Baobab, he sounds right at home. With all its tony production values, Specialist In All Styles, like the Buena Vista Social Club album, sounds almost too good, closer to a memory or a dream than a slice of musical history. I'm not complaining.
A similar artful perfectionism runs through Nothing's In Vain (Coono Du Reer) (Nonesuch), the new album by Youssou 'Dour who served as co-producer on the Orchestra Baobab album, just in case any dots remain unconnected. If Specialist In All Styles is a testament to the pleasures of a resourceful collective, Nothing's In Vain speaks to the ravishing power of the solo virtuoso. He sings in three languages, Wolof, French, and English, and he seems to contain within him at least that many voices, from the suave baritone heard on the French love meditations to the pinched, slightly hysterical tenor he uses to exhort his people to better themselves. Here, 'Dour has toned down the pop elements from his earlier work, the synth lines and sax solos, in favor of a highly produced, self-consciously folkloric sound. It suits him.
'Dour has been a savvy world traveler for some time now and unlike Orchestra Baobab, he didn't have to wait 15 years to be reinvented by a Western record label. He built a studio in Dakar and did it himself.