Monday, June 26, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #182 - Orchestra Baobab - Made in Dakar

Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 out of the ashes of the legendary Star Band in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. Singers Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and Laye Mboup were among the founding members of the group, and over the next couple years before their first recording they picked up key members Ndiouga Dieng (vocals), Togolese law student and guitar genius Barthélémy Attisso, and Issa Cissoko on saxophone (an equally dominant instrumental voice with Attisso in the group), along with many other members over time. They quickly rose to the top of the city’s highly competitive club scene, putting on electrifying live shows in which they’d mix modernized traditional tunes and their own originals, often with a heavy influence of Afro-Cuban music. They released about a dozen albums by the end of the decade, despite losing Mboup in an auto accident in 1974. But also by the end of the decade, they began to lose ground as Dakar’s top draw, when another group founded by Star Band alumni formed a new style of music and began gaining in popularity. This group, Étoile de Dakar, had hired the young singer Youssou N’Dour, and between his remarkable talent and charisma and their new mbalax style of music, their popularity rocketed to the top, making N’Dour an international superstar. Orchestra Baobab’s mixture of West African traditional rhythms and melodies mixed with Afro-Cuban music and modern guitar no longer seemed so cutting edge. By 1987, Baobab disbanded.

But their legend persisted. In 1982, they had recorded Pirates Choice, released by the World Circuit label in Europe in 1989 after the band had broken up, reissued again worldwide with bonus material in 2001, renewing interest in the group. Between this interest and encouragement from none other than Youssou N’Dour, the band decided to reform, getting Attisso to put his law practice on hold and pick up his guitar for the first time in over a decade and join them in the studio with N’Dour and label owner Nick Gold producing. The result was Specialist in All Styles, which found the group revisiting some of their own classics along with new material for an album that was as good as anything in their lengthy discography – better even, perhaps, because they were better musicians and the production was crystalline. It’s a great album that’s unfortunately currently out of print, like much of their earlier material. The reunion album and tours were such a rousing success that the group got back into the studio again a few years later to make Made in Dakar, which proved to be yet another autumnal triumph from the group, featuring the same 11 main players from the classic lineup who’d recorded the previous album.

Gold again produced, the sound is again superb, and the band is exceptional - where Specialist in All Styles was made by a band burning to prove they could still make great music after a lengthy hiatus, here they know what they can do and waste no time doing it. They don’t mind here flexing their muscles a bit, there settling into a leisurely pace that only a group that knows each other’s every move could do.

Things are great from the get-go - on the lead cut “Papa Ndiaye” (an older song revived for the session, like many here) things open with Barthélémy Attisso’s guitar underpinned with a tight, driving rhythm. Before long, the great horn section comes in, harmonized vocals follow, and then Assane Mboup takes the wailing lead vocal. Issa Cissoko’s sax kicks in after the chorus, and the picture of the band is basically complete with this - on rhythms fast or slow the group always moves as one unit, vocals from one or more of the five lead vocalists (three of whom also play percussion) sing the tunes, and Attisso or (slightly less often) Cissoko takes a searing solo. Sometimes a guest jumps in (Youssou N’Dour again makes a cameo here, singing co-lead with Mboup on the second cut, the great “Nijaay”; trumpeter Ibou Konate gets a couple solo turns), but usually it’s Attisso or Cissoko making the most waves (or bouncing off each other, as in “Nijaay”), with vocals only coming in second in the mind because the duties are split amongst so many equals. After Mboup kills on the first two cuts, Balla Sidibe takes the lead vocal on “Beni Baraale,” copped from Guinea’s famed group Bembeya Jazz and featuring a beefed up horn section, then Rudy Gomis takes a great lead in Portuguese Creole before handing the solo spotlight to Cissoko on the relentlessly driving, salsa-inflected “Ami Kita Bay.” Things slow down with the leisurely, Cuban-styled “Cabral” (featuring co-lead vocals by Sidibe and Gomis), and then picks right back up with “Sibam,” another revival out of their extensive catalog and possibly the vocal highlight of the entire set thanks to Medoune Diallo’s beyond-perfect voice.

As things roll into the latter part of the album, it takes on a more characteristically Senegalese flavor in the mbalax-styled “Ndéleng Ndéleng” (with its extended Attisso solo) and “Jirim,” in which Attisso is paying homage in his playing to the American country music he heard growing up and Cissoko gives nods to his idol King Curtis, while vocalist Ndiouga Dieng steps up for his first lead vocal. The record closes with “Colette,” originally conceived as a danceable instrumental in the style of Blue Note groovers of the 60s, before Dieng and Gomis added improvised vocals in rehearsals for this album. It’s another showcase for Attisso, whose semi-psychedelic solo is dedicated to Carlos Santana, and it’s fitting to give him the solo space, seeing as Attisso stepped out of a comfortable life to rejoin the band. And perhaps it’s even more fitting to name it that, given that the Colette being honored is Attisso’s wife, who allowed him to pursue this.

Orchestra Baobab again went on hiatus after this record, released in Europe in 2007 and in the States the next year. But now, ten years later, they’ve returned with a new album, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, who passed away last year. Issa Cissoko, Rudy Gomis, Balla Sidibe, and bassist Charlie Ndiaye (whose lithe, powerful, driving lines I neglected to mention above), have all returned for an album that’s more an acoustic affair, centered often around Abdoulaye Cissoko’s (no relation to Issa) kora playing. It’s beautiful, often exciting, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that for me the spark of Attisso’s leads were not missed. Definitely worth hearing, especially if your tastes run toward the mellower than mine do, but for me Made In Dakar and Specialist in All Styles remain the band’s great 21st century albums – so far.

-         Patrick Brown

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