By Gary Crosse | Reuters
NEW YORK - Long before the Buena Vista Social Club’s debut album spawned a salsa explosion from Miami to Madrid, the Orchestra Baobab had packed houses grooving to Afro-Cuban dance music in the nightclubs of Dakar.
But the Buena Vista Social Club might never have come about if it weren’t for the Orchestra Baobab, a Senegalese ensemble that dissolved 20 years ago but is finding a new international audience with a reunion album and world tour.
Formed in 1970 in the heady days following Senegal’s independence, the 10-piece ensemble ruled the music scene there for over a decade with its beautiful fusion of West Africa’s myriad musical traditions tinged with a flavor of Cuba.
The group brought together a unique blend of musicians including Balla Sidibe, a percussionist and singer from the Casamance region of southern Senegal; Rudy Gomis, who croons in the Portuguese Creole of Guinea-Bissau, and Togo’s Barthelemy Attiso, a remarkable self-taught guitarist renowned as among Africa’s best.
But by the early 1980s, times were changing in Senegal. With the rise of mbalax, a harder-hitting, rock-influenced musical style popularized by a young singer named Youssou N’Dour, Senegalese youth embraced a new sound, and Orchestra Baobab’s popularity waned.
In 1982, Baobab recorded a collection of favorite songs released as “Pirates Choice,” but disbanded soon after, passing into relative obscurity for nearly two decades.
Little did they know then, but “Pirates Choice” would sow the seeds for a boom in Afro-Cuban music, and Baobab’s own resurrection, years later.
THE ROOTS OF BUENA VISTA
The album was circulated among deejays and African music aficionados for years following its release. Its haunting, soulful tracks, such as “Utrus Horas,” sung in a mixture of Wolof and Spanish, and “Ray M’bele,” with Attiso’s melodic guitar, made the album a seminal classic.
Among those bewitched by the record was the Midas-like music producer Nick Gold, so taken with “Pirates Choice” that he re-released it in 1989 under his new label, World Circuit. He later credited the music of Orchestra Baobab with inspiring him to research Cuban music.
In 1996, he organized a project that would bring together musicians from West Africa and Cuba to explore the cultural connections between the two.
But when the African musicians couldn’t make it to Havana, Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder went ahead and recorded an album with a cast of veteran Cuban musicians, including Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer and the late Compay Segundo. That album became the Grammy Award-winning Buena Vista Social Club.
Inspired by Buena Vista’s triumph, Gold and now Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour coaxed Baobab out of retirement in 2001 for a successful reunion tour, which led to their first album in nearly 20 years, “Specialist In All Styles.”
“It just felt like the time was right, and having this opportunity to play the music, we decided to take advantage of it,” percussionist Sidibe told Reuters in a recent interview.
Taken from the typical barber shop signboards of Senegal’s bustling capital, the album’s title could describe the wide-ranging musical styles of the band.
From traditionally themed songs in Wolof, calling for respect and open communication between generations, to Latin salsa ballads, Orchestra Baobab has successfully recaptured their classic sound.
Sidibe said he sees Cuban music as a part of the African diaspora, like the branches of a tree.
“Cuban music has always interested us, especially since we consider it a part of the African music tradition,” he said. “We were interested in bringing it back to Senegal and doing Cuban standards in local languages.”
On “Hommage a Tonton Ferrer,” which includes guest vocals by N’Dour as well as the Cuban troubadour Ferrer of Buena Vista fame, Baobab celebrates the Afro-Cuban connection and brings it full circle.
“Ibrahim Ferrer was really surprised by our music. When he heard it he said, ‘I had no idea that Senegal was doing this kind of thing.’ He was very excited by it,” Sidibe said.
This summer, Baobab embarked on a world tour that is taking the group from North America to Europe and Japan.
As President Bush visited Senegal on his recent tour of Africa, Orchestra Baobab was sweeping New York music lovers off their feet, playing a packed concert at Central Park’s SummerStage, followed by a more intimate club show at Sounds of Brazil.
Sidibe said the band was taking its newfound success in stride. “Whether or not you have success, you are still just a person like any other,” he noted humbly.