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African Legends

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Orchestra Baobab
By Banning Eyre

Published November 9, 2006

Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab—formed in 1970 and officially disbanded in 1987—has been riding again since 2001, having recorded their first new album in more than 20 years.

Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab—formed in 1970 and officially disbanded in 1987—has been riding again since 2001with most of its key players in place. By the end of that year, the musicians had recorded their first new album in more than 20 years.

Baobab started out in post-colonial Senegal’s most cosmopolitan milieu. They were chosen as the house band for the then-new Baobab nightclub in central Dakar. Baobab’s earliest recordings, available on Baobab-N’Wolof, mostly sound like guitar-driven Afro-Cuban grooves with beautifully elastic Wolof vocals overlaid.

But from the start with Baobab, there were signs of remarkable inventiveness. Baobab’s music brimmed with local color and pride in Senegal’s emerging national identity, but it differed from the music of contemporaneous bands like Bembeya Jazz in Guinea, or the Super Rail Band in Mali. Baobab certainly waved the Senegalese flag at times, but the group always prided itself on an international identity.

It was back in 1987 that World Circuit’s Nick Gold released a set of songs from a particularly rich 1982 Baobab studio session, and called it Pirate’s Choice. World Circuit has now repackaged the release with six additional tracks in a 2-CD edition, as good an introduction to the mature Baobab sound as you will find.

No less a figure than Youssou N’Dour has applauded the return of Baobab as a way of helping young Senegalese rediscover pan-Africanism, an interesting reversal of the 1970s notion of using bands to build national identity. Whatever its social merits, reuniting an African dance band after a 20-year hiatus is no easy task. It took the determination of their present manager—British writer Jenny Cathcart—and the support of World Circuit to make it happen. Here’s hoping that other moldering maestros in the world’s once glorious backwaters will also find angels to rescue them.

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