The best of both worlds

In the bougainvillea-strewn courtyard of Dakar’s Cultural Centre, Rudi Gomis flicks through a tatty photo album and sighs nostalgically for the 1970s, the decade when Orchestra Baobab were the biggest band in Senegal.

“Everyone loved us,” he says. “Young, old, rich, poor.
Everyone.”

Black-and-white snaps document guest appearances before prime ministers, judges and the military; at the selection of Miss Senegal and the inauguration of the former president, Abdou Diaf.

Yellowing flyers advertise concerts in Guinea, Tunisia and France. The band’s 13-strong line-up beam out from the pictures, wearing the wide-lapelled shirts of their heyday; a few pages later they are sporting the blue and gold lamé numbers that coincided with their demise.

Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970, taking their name from the swanky Baobab Club, and disbanded in the mid-1980s.

Senegalese music was largely ignored outside Africa until 1985, the year Peter Gabriel met Youssou N’Dour in Dakar and brought to the West the singer’s mbalax sound — where electric instruments follow the rhythms played by sabar drums.

In his wake, local stars Baaba Maal and, to a lesser degree, Cheikh Lo achieved Anglo-American success in the 1990s.

But before them all came Orchestra Baobab, packing houses and stadiums in an age when the band — not the individual — was the thing. Their delicate balance of Latin and African styles set them apart.

“Baobab were different from other bands because we spent a lot of time working on harmonies and arrangements,” says Gomis, now a teacher of French and Wolof, Senegal’s national language.

“We had a more open attitude and better musicians. We were the first band to blend the Wolof folklore of the griots [traditional Senegalese storytellers] with salsa. All our members came from different regions. We were a métissage — a mix of everything.”

The 54-year-old would prefer to forget the lamé period, when “we brought in traditional sabar drums alongside kit-drums, congas and timbales. We wanted to keep up with the times, but it was too much — a cacophony,” he says.

It was a far cry from the laid-back Afro-Cuban rhythms and mellow arrangements of Werente, their 1982 studio session. This spawned a bootlegging frenzy, eventually getting a 1989 album release under the title Pirate’s Choice.

Baobab’s slow, sensuous reworking of Cuban tunes enjoyed heavy attention from British world-music fans and the DJs Andy Kershaw and Charlie Gillett.

Pirate’s Choice has remained on lists of top 10 world-music albums ever since. Recorded straight to two-track, its lo-fi tropical mix marks a time when Senegal was breaking away from the Latin sounds that had been coming through the port of Dakar since the 1940s. The country was rediscovering its own musical identity.

“We were,” offers Gomis, “the link between Cuban salsa and Youssou N’Dour’s mbalax.”

Orchestra Baobab’s line-up included griot singers, a jazz-influenced Malian saxophonist, a Moroccan guitarist, a Nigerian clarinet player and a Gambian drummer, all carried along by the fluid guitar of Barthelemy Atisso from Togo and the Latin-influenced songwriting of Gomis from Guinea-Bissau. Vocalists took turns on the microphone, delivering dance turns and love songs in Spanish, Wolof, French and Portuguese Creole.

Their fame stemmed, in part, from the fact that they were the first band to reconcile Dakar’s chattering classes with the populace. For left-wing intellectuals, their Cuban influences helped to reinforce the severing of colonial ties, while their indigenous elements were embraced by people on the street.

Above all, in a country that sways to innumerable rhythms, Orchestra Baobab defied audiences to not dance.

“Our fathers were dancing to Cuban bands like Sexteto Habanera in the 1930s,” says Gomis.

“We felt in line with changa, salsa and cha-cha-cha. Our tunes are still played on the radio every day. Young people tell me they remember them as lullabies.”

When Baobab eventually broke up, the members dispersed to forge other careers. Some now play in bands in the hotels of the Petite Cte, Senegal’s Riviera. Atisso works as a lawyer. Gomis has had a couple of solo salsa releases but makes a living from teaching. They all, he says, earn a pittance.

Baobab’s gigs once earned them the relatively huge sum of £800 a night and it was this that inhibited attempts to get them back together.

“Everyone thought we’d be too expensive, when we would simply have been happy to play our music. This is the beginning of something important.”

At the very least, with Gold and World Circuit behind them, their renaissance seems inevitable. Something similar to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, perhaps?

“Maybe that’s our destiny,” Gomis grins. “Now we just need a big film to let the world know about us.”

It is optimism shared by other core members of the band, reunited at a Dakar restaurant the following day. Atisso has flown in from Togo for the first time in five years to join rehearsals for the Barbican and lay down demo tracks for a new album that will, if all goes well, be produced by N’Dour and released by World Circuit.

After much general hilarity, pipe-smoking and comparing of stomachs (“My bump is bigger than yours!”), Gomis, Atisso, the vocalist Balla Sidibe and the drummer Mountaga Kouyate speak enthusiastically about their combined future.

“You see,” says Gomis proudly, “we are just like the tree we were named after. The baobab lives for years and years. Storms and cyclones can rustle it, but it always stands firm.

“As strong as ever.”

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