When I was a kid, I liked watching fights: It could be red and black ants ganging in my shoebox arena, Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura grappling at the Cow Palace, or my brother and his crew popping and breaking against rival poseurs on busted linoleum strips to the swishy mix of “Egyptian Lover” and “It’s Just Begun.” My friends and I would argue about who would win hypothetical battles: King Kong vs. Godzilla; He-Man vs. Skeletor; Rock Steady Crew vs. Cold Crush Brothers; Mom vs. Dad; Buena Vista Social Club vs. Orchestra Baobab . . . OK, so maybe the last one is what my friends and I argue about today. I mean, who would win in a battle between two of the greatest musical ensembles ever to grace the planet?
Picture this: ring announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund, mic in hand, bellowing, “And in this corner, led by their manager, Youssou N’Dour, and weighing in at a combined weight of 1800 pounds, hailing from the West African country of Senegaaal, the challenger, Orchestra Baobaaaab. [Dramatic pause] And in the opposite corner, led by manager Ry Cooooodaah and weighing in at a combined weight of 1000 pounds, they have also been known by the well-earned nickname Afro-Cuban All Stars, hailing from sexy Cuuuuuubaaa, the defending world music champions of the woooorld, the Buenaaaa Vistaaa Social Cluuub.” On one side, the middle-aged West African dozen, wearing matching printed shirts and charcoal slacks, and on the other, the septua/octo/nonagenarian Cuban dozen, holding onto the ropes to prevent hips from popping out. The bell rings. Balla Sidibe and Compay Segundo square off. Compay pulls out a lit cigar and is about to jab his opponent when . . . wait a minute! All of a sudden Ibrahim Ferrer of the BVSC sneaks up behind the 95-year-old and grabs his arm, looks at him, shakes his head and . . . gives a lecture on the similarities between Cuban and Senegalese music.
So what in criminy do the BVSC have to do with Orchestra Baobab and their sublime new Specialist in All Styles? From the slave trade and colonialism to driving congas, mellifluous tenor sax, and soaring vocal harmonies; from obscurity to fame to obscurity and back again; from producer Nick “Everything I Touch Turns To” Gold and master mixer Jerry “Not Jerky” Boys, quite a bit.
Much has been written explaining the invasion of Cuban tunes that hit West Africa in the 1930s and spread like wildfire from Senegal down to the Congo. Whether from Caribbean cruise ships carrying large rumba orchestras whose musicians would chill in the ports, Cuban sailors leaving waterlogged son 45s behind, or EMI/HMV releasing Venezuela-pressed Afro-Cuban dance music throughout France and the former French West African colonies, the instrumental foundation of pachanga, mambo, and cha-cha-cha invaded Senegalese popular music. Nowhere did this “new” sound take a firmer root than in Dakar, the country’s capital. And no other band integrating Latin rhythms was more successful in the 1970s than Orchestra Baobab.
A brief history. Orchestra Baobab was assembled in 1970 to perform at Dakar’s newest hip nightclub, the Baobab in the city’s “European quarter.” Named after a common Senegalese tree known for its longevity (imagine a knobbed, gnarled, and larger version of the Joshua tree), this club was meant to entertain government dignitaries, tourists, and anyone else with money to burn. At the time, it was common practice for house bands to be named after clubs; hence Orchestra Boabab-Gouye-Gui de Dakar, later simply Orchestra Baobab. Many of the original musicians and singers were plucked and swayed from other major acts, such as the renowned Star Band, and the majority of them could sing and play several instruments. O.B. were also ethnically diverse—from tribes within Senegal as well as from Togo and Nigeria. With a dozen members strutting their stuff on Latin and indigenous percussion, two guitars and saxophones, bass, and a slew of vocalists including a couple of spiritual Wolof singers, O.B. was soon the most popular dance band in Dakar. They even played at a wedding for Pierre Cardin’s daughter. But in the ’80s, clubs sponsoring them began to close; people wanted something fresh. Latin rhythms started to lose their attractive luster, and despite releasing arguably their best albums between 1980 and ’82, Baobab couldn’t keep a whippersnapper named Youssou from creating that desired new sound—Mbalax—with his dynamite group, Etoile de Dakar. By 1987, Orchestra Baobab was officially no more.
Which, more or less, leads us to Specialist in All Styles. If you sift through Baobab’s previous five U.S. releases, you will realize that this new album is more a re-recorded greatest-hits compilation than anything else. Of the nine songs, at least seven have been released previously. And if you were lucky and wise enough to see Baobab this past July for their very first American tour, you will recognize that this CD essentially replicates their live set.
But in the end, it doesn’t really matter if the songs are 30 years old, because this music will make you wanna dance, relax, even learn Wolof. Specialist is co-produced by N’Dour, who forgoes the cheesier overproduction his later albums tend toward. Predominantly Latin tracks split equally with ones echoing reggae, high life, and afrobeat; native (Wolof and Mandinka) tongues with colonial (Spanish and French). Perhaps the most stunning song—certainly the hardest groove—is “Dée Moo Wóor,” composed and sung beautifully in Wolof by Ndiouga Dieng. Over a borderline roots-reggae pulse egged on by the timbales and congas, Dieng wails about the death of his father. And though you may not literally understand his lament, you feel his pain.
The Latin heritage becomes more salient with “Jiin Ma Jiin Ma.” Two saxophones fence with and loop around one another into a salsa accentuating Rudy Gomis, who, in concert, did the best George Benson-scat-with-guitar impression I’ve seen in years. The album really hits its stride when baby-faced youngblood Assane Mboup, perhaps the best vocalist of the many great ones here, is showcased on “Ndongoy Daara,” originally composed and sung by Baobab’s legendary Wolof singer Laye Mboup (who died in a car accident in 1974). The younger Mboup’s pitch-defying alto deftly recalls both his predecessor’s range and the distinguished call of BVSC alum Ibrahim Ferrer. And then, lo and behold, Ferrer himself appears with Youssou himself in “Hommage à Tonton Ferrer,” a remake of “Utru Horas” off of 1982’s Pirates Choice. As lilting and languid as Baobab’s bolero side gets, “Hommage” has African musicians singing a tribute in Wolof to an Afro-Cuban maestro, who responds lovingly in beautiful Spanish, “I’m not going to forget this meeting . . . Viva Cuba y Senegal!”
The connection is sealed with the superb guajira-son “El Son Te Llama.” If you really want to have fun, dig out your copy of the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ 1997 A Toda Cuba Le Gusta and play “Amor Verdadero,” composed by José “Cheo” Marquetti a half-century ago. Where the Cuban version’s heavy horn arrangement concentrates on the melody, Baobab’s cranks the pace and relies on the rhythm, emphasizing Charlie Ndiaye’s scampering bass and the reverberating guitar of principal arranger Barthélemy Attisso. Medoune Diallo’s seductive croon, meanwhile, magnificently twists and turns the Spanish lyrics.
Orchestra Baobab have proved they can endure like the tree whose name they bear—don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years. Mama said knock you out.