Dakar, Saturday 9 September. Ramadan kicks off in just a few days’ time so the inhabitants of the Senegalese capital are out in force tonight, thronging the streets as they seek out the final festivities before the month of prayer and fasting begins. While feisty French female rap star Diam’s takes the Iba Mar Diop stadium by storm, club dancefloors elsewhere are packed with revelers dancing to the latest mbalax grooves or Afro-Cuban sounds. Meanwhile, over at the Just 4 U (one of Dakar’s trendiest nightspots, just around the corner from Cheikh Anta Diop University) those indefatigable veterans Orchestra Baobab are on hand assuring their regular Saturday night slot.
The group take to the stage around midnight to play a marathon set lasting well over three hours. The tables down below are packed with a mixed audience of Africans and Europeans, eating, drinking and generally soaking up the infectious sound of the sprightly Baobabs, looking remarkably dapper and debonair despite their advanced age. The tiny dancefloor is filled with couples swaying along to the group’s snappy rumbas and catchy boleros, reworked Senegalese-style with the delicious Afro-Cuban mix that has become the Orchestra Baobab’s signature style.
Barthélemy Attisso, a respected barrister and member of the bar in Lomé, picked up his old guitar after a fifteen-year break when the Orchestra Baobab reformed in 2001. He now stands centre-stage, his face full of concentration, holding the audience spellbound with his impressive guitar solos. Baobab’s saxophonists Issa Cissoko and Atisso assure the brass section, Cissoko wandering around the stage with his instrument, charming the ladies and playing the clown while Atiso adopts a more serious pose. Meanwhile, the singers (Assane Mboup, Balla Sidibé and Rudy Gomis) power out their awesome vocals.
Tonight, Orchestra Baobab are out to prove they have lost none of their legendary magic. "Everyone thought we were dead," jokes Barthélémy Attisso, "but they should know old baobab trees never die! Even when they’re all gnarled and dried up, they send out new shoots and come back to life. Let me assure you, we’re still very much alive despite all the problems life has thrown in our path." "The baobab is a symbol of resistance, defying the passage of time," chimes in Balla Sidibé (one of Orchestra Baobab’s founding singers together with Rudy Gomis).
Baobab’s symbolic name actually comes from the club where their story began. The group were formed out of ex-members of The Star Band (the resident orchestra at Le Miami, a popular club in Dakar’s Médina). The Baobab, opened in 1970 by two businessmen and a politician relative of President Senghor’s, went on to become the most select nightspot in Dakar, the place where anyone who was anyone went to be seen. "It was a really high class joint," recalls Balla Sidibé, "And we were very proud to perform there in front of all those elegant people, representing Senegal’s élite. It was a great honour for us."
Over the next five years, the Orchestra Baobab officiated as the club’s resident orchestra while assuring a busy tour schedule, performing in other African countries such as Cameroon, Tunisia and Guinea. The Orchestra also recorded a number of albums, financed by the club’s owners, before changing venues after the death of one of their lead singers, Laye Mboup, in 1974. Four years later, the Orchestra Baobab spent six months in Paris, making two albums on Ibrahima Sylla’s record label before flying home to Dakar.
And Orchestra Baobab’s story could have gone on for many more years if a certain young singer had not come along and lured fans away with his velvet vocals and vibrant mbalax beats. In 1985, the Orchestra Baobab gracefully bowed out from the stage, eclipsed by the lightning rise to fame of Youssou N’Dour and a new generation of musicians bent on modernising traditional Wolof rhythms. Youssou and his peers went on to establish mbalax as a virtual monopoly on the Senegalese music scene, leaving little room for their rivals or Baobab’s old Afro-Cuban sound.
Orchestra Baobab could have disappeared from the music world altogether if it had not been for British record producer Nick Gold. The latter was already renowned for having coaxed a group of veteran Cuban musicians out of retirement to take part in Buena Vista Social Club (who scored a surprise hit, selling nearly 7 million albums sold worldwide). Gold felt sure he could work the same magic with Orchestra Baobab. He got the group together again to play a concert at London’s Barbican Centre in 2001 and re-released Pirates Choice (the group’s last album originally released in 1982). Then, in 2002, Orchestra Baobab made their official comeback on the recording front with Specialist In All Styles (an album co-produced by one of their earliest fans, Youssou N’Dour). This year, Orchestra Baobab are back in the news with Made In Dakar. The album, recorded in Youssou N’Dour’s Xippi Studio, features a perfect mix of old and new tracks - and proves without a shadow of a doubt that the Orchestra Baobab remain as relevant today as ever!
Translation : Julie Street