Orchestra Baobab is a shining example of the positive outcome of negative historical circumstances. Out of the malignant carnivorous flowers of the slave trade, Middle Passage, and wholesale colonial appropriation and exploitation of Africa, have blossomed the many fruits of a new culture both in the so-called New World and back in the Motherland. The cross-pollination of Africa, Europe, and Indigenous America yields an incredible cornucopia of artistic and religious expression that travels both ways, and it is a testament to the strength and inner light of the human spirit that so much positive energy and healing strategies are the result of such an evil garden of suffering and destruction.
The members of the pan-African tribe of Baobab are like the band’s namesake tree: sacred and organic, slow growing and enduring, revealing vital complexities beneath a seemingly placid surface. Like the tree the band is a graceful temple of bundled sinew, solidly muscular but able to bend in the winds of history. The Baobab is imposing in its longevity, relying on a system of deep roots and natural wisdom to throw off seeming dormancy or death and the vicissitudes of the barren harsh environment that surrounds it.
The Orchestra’s recent award winning album “Specialist In All Styles” is proof that, like the ancient budding baobab tree in the monsoon rains, they are reborn and have brought forth fruit in their due season. Unless you burn away all the Baobab’s roots, you cannot kill the tree. It is said that in the old days the hereditary bardic musicians called griots were buried in the hollowed out centers of the sacred baobab trunk, no doubt infusing the tree with the spirit of music.
First formed in Dakar, Senegal, at the Baobab Club in 1970, out of the ashes of the rival Stars Band from the Miami Club, Orchestra Baobab disbanded in the early1980s and did not record together again until 2001. In a 2003 performance at Northampton’s [Massachusetts] Pearl Street Nightclub, the band ably demonstrated that both the ancient spirit of the West African griot was alive and well in the heart of the tree, but also that many other African and European derived elements were active in their eclectic but coherent mix.
The full spectrum of African Diaspora musical expression was there on stage, from rock to jazz, with the more naturally similar Cuban song forms of the son montuno and cha-cha-cha dominating, though less obvious Caribbean strains like zouk, merengue, and reggae were in abundance as well. With the affable and talented lead vocalist Rudy Gomis shouting “Thank You” between melismatic nasal strains of Islamic influenced singing, and incredible lead guitarist Barthelemy Attisso sounding like Wes Montgomery channeling both Afro-Cuban tres player Arsenio Rodriguez and Sudanese oud player Hamza el Din, all carried along by the bubbling cross-cultural currents of percussionists Balla Sidibe and Mountaga Koite, the audience was treated to the strains of African music come full circle.
The show ended with saxophonist Issa Sisokho blowing a saucy accapella bop coda, sounding like a jazz player of the 50s, with his tall thin frame topped by a jaunty fedora that brought to mind Dexter Gordon. A listen to their first recordings from 1970 reveals initially surprising nuances, from crazy acid fuzz guitar ala Jimi Hendrix, to dubbed out echoes reminding one of Lee “Scratch” Perry or King Tubby, as well as funky James Brown-isms galloping alongside the arabesque call of the muezzin and the griot twang of the kora.
African salsero extraordinaire Ricardo Lemvo has said that he grew up in the Congo listening to records of Arsenio Rodriguez, Orquesa Aragón, and Trio Matamoros, enjoying jazz by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, New York salsa by Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barretto, and the soul and funk of Otis Redding and James Brown. Like Baobab, Africando, and so many others, Lemvo also brings his own native traditions to his sound, completing the experience with a full circumference of musical references.
Though many people might not realize that modern Afro Pop has at its base a firm foundation of Latin and other Diasporic music, musicians like Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, Youssou N’Dour and Manu Dibango have been the first to admit it to any one with ears to hear. As Ricardo Lemvo says, “When Cuban music traveled back to Africa it was instantly recognized and embraced.” And this is not a phenomenon of the 1960s or ‘70s, it goes back to the very first 78s of not only Cuban music but of Calypso, Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, and Minstrel “race” records that were first brought to the ports of West Africa by sailors in the ‘teens and 20s.
As a young singer, Youssou N’Dour had greatly admired Orchestra Baobab back in the day, and he jumped at the chance to work on their reunion CD with producer Nick Gold of Buena Vista Social Club fame. “They had such a clean sound, and they were pan-African. We’re ready for this to come back. We’ve put up barriers in our music,” he has said, referring to the dominance of the Wolof sound in Senegalese pop, “and we have to bring the barriers down. All the young kids, they understand now just how important the 70s were for their music, so they’re ready to listen.”
The band that helped close the circle and usher in a new era for African music has helped turn on a new generation to its holistic approach. Rudy Gomis commented to me, when I mentioned that my favorite song on the new album was their rollicking version of the old Cuban son standard “El Son Te Llama” (“the son is calling you”), that singing those verses was like coming home for him, a song to the ancestors and an anthem for the future.