West Africa Social Club

Orchestra Baobab bring Seventies Senegal to modern America

Let cool heads prevail, runs the refrain of the day, as if a smooth surrender of the Palestinians might be negotiated under the influence of Gil Evans or marijuana. Yet there's a hard grain of truth in the belief that peace is somehow synonymous with calm. You feel it every time you short-circuit anger or anxiety to step outside yourself and gaze back upon the world from afar--like Jim Lovell in Apollo 8, taking in what he called "a grand oasis in the vastness of space."

This is the kind of philosophical awe that Orchestra Baobab still inspire, their earthy beauty somehow erasing the decades, oceans, and baroque cultural barriers that separate us from 1970s Senegal. You can almost touch the monkey skins adorning the elegant Dakar club where they labored as a house band, the walls and ceiling molded to resemble the contours of a baobab trunk. Labored might be pushing it, actually: The music was so relaxed it made Buena Vista Social Club sound like the Ramones.

Baobab resemble that Cuban-codger franchise in more ways than one. After a long absence from popular music, they have reunited at the urging of World Circuit, the label that relaunched the neglected Cuban stars. And the group has embarked on a career-reviving six-city tour of the U.S., including, as luck would have it, a free outdoor performance at Northrop Plaza on Friday. One key World Circuit honcho even credits Baobab's distinct Africanized charanga with inspiring him to delve into Cuban music in the first place. But if that triangular-seeming factoid leaves you puzzled, one listen to Pirates Choice (World Circuit/Nonesuch) will set you straight. Baobab's "lost" classic from 1982, which reached European shores in the late Eighties (after the band broke up) and arrived here officially only this year (after the group reassembled), has always been a collector's Holy Grail for the way its slow-burn mix of Savannah and Cuban styles seems second nature. (An added bonus disc of outtakes even shows their musical Creole expanding to include reggae.)

Perhaps Baobab's phenomenon is better rhapsodized than explained, but allow me an attempt at back-story. For starters, Cuban music was the rock 'n' roll of West Africa well before postcolonial leaders began warming to Castro. In the bourgeois autocracies of Mali and Senegal, as well as in communist Guinea, the Cuban son and rumba formed a lingua franca for musicians with diverse regional traditions ready to plug into amplifiers. Several distinct "national" bands emerged from this amalgam, including Guinea's similarly visionary Bembeya Jazz, who played frenetic Chuck Berry salsa, and Mali's Super Rail Band, who will play in Loring Park (and at First Avenue) on July 22.

To hear Baobab members talk today, you'd think these bands were the violins of a dying empire. And in a way they were: Even as they gained a regional following, Baobab were a special comfort to the political class that would just as soon ignore the mood of the street. As the group's swankfests continued through 1979 in the old European quarter, a teenaged Wolof singer named Youssou N'Dour was across town in the Medina preparing the more rhythmic and jumpy mbalax revolution, which would sweep Baobab into the dustbin even before Pirates was set to six-track.

Poetically, N'Dour is now the band's patron, playing Ry Cooder to their forthcoming Buena Vista-style comeback album, appropriately titled Specialist in All Styles. Some old sonic hallmarks remain intact on this brilliant new work: the minimalism of guitarist Barthelemy Atisso; the gorgeously entwined voices of Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis, and Ndiouga Dieng; the curt lyricism of sax man Issa Cissoko. And fans of Baobab's early flirtation with Wolof styles, best documented on N'Wolof (CNR Music), will even hear echoes of the late singer Abdoulaye Laye M'Boup in the young griot vocalist Assane M'Boup (no relation).

As Pirates lovers know, their bolero is more trance rock than background decoration: In fact, both the 2001 and 1982 sessions recall nothing so much as the moment cool heads prevailed in Kingston studios circa 1967, birthing the hypnotic lope of rocksteady. Baobab sound like they have all the time in the world to impress us. And it turns out they did.

 
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