Change is a word that gets dropped a lot these days, but for the members of Orchestra Baobab, consistency has been a much higher priority. After a decade-and-a-half hiatus, during which all of the band’s founding members were scattered, the Senegal-based collective—one of Africa’s most popular and influential bands of the 1970s and ’80s— reunited in 2001 with one goal in mind: to sound as good as they did when they left off, without changing a thing. Apparently they succeeded, because their 2002 comeback album Specialist In All Styles elevated Orchestra Baobab from being a regionally popular African band to one beloved worldwide.
Another six years have passed since that recording, and Orchestra Baobab has just released Made In Dakar (World Circuit/Nonesuch) to yet another wave of fanfare. And if those fans—both those who knew the band before, and those who’ve signed on during phase two—come away from hearing the album thinking that this one is even better, but not necessarily different, than the last, then the members of Orchestra Baobab will be perfectly pleased.
“When the band first started, we became very well known for having a particular style,” guitarist Barthélemy Attisso explains. Speaking through a translator from his home in Lomé, Togo, Attisso is a founding member who also serves as the band’s arranger. “We were known for having that style throughout the 1970s, up until the 1980s. Then there was 15 years of silence, when we weren’t playing. When we got together again, the way that people knew us was by our sound—our sound was our identity. The feedback that we got was that what we had done was really good, so we continue to try to reproduce that style. It was almost like it was our duty—our responsibility—for the benefi t of the people who wanted us to continue.”
Today all but two of the core members of Orchestra Baobab are holdovers from the original band. Formed in 1970, most of the musicians had put in time with the Star Band, a top Senegalese outfi t whose ranks also included, for a while, countryman Youssou N’Dour. Taking their name from Dakar’s Baobab Club, where they performed regularly, the players in the group were adamant from the start that their sound would expand beyond traditional West African styles to incorporate musical elements from other corners of the world, notably Cuba—Latin music had long been popular in Senegal—as well as Portugal, the U.S. and elsewhere. Part of the reason they did so was because audiences expected it of them.
“The owner of the Baobab Club was interested in all different kinds of music,” Attisso says, “and because he had the money, he was able to get copies of these discs and bring them in. We would listen during our rest breaks to all of this other music, and then make it our own. It got to the point where the people in the club didn’t want to hear the discs anymore. They wanted to hear us playing all the different styles. So in effect, we actually came to replace the club’s discotheque. Then as time went on, people would challenge us and say, ‘We heard this song. Can you play it like this?’ We had a lot of ambition and a lot of nerve and we were willing to do it.”
Orchestra Baobab ultimately released more than 20 albums, but by the mid-’80s, the group had packed it in as the sound of N'dour's mbalax took over the Senegalese public's consciousness. Over the next several years, however, their reputation began to grow outside of Africa, and in 1989, Nick Gold (founder of the U.K.-based World Circuit label) released Pirate’s Choice, a handful of tracks that the band had r