Graded on a Curve: Orchestra Baobab,
Tribute to Ndiouga
Dieng

For longtime lovers of global sounds, Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab require no introduction. Budding aficionados need only understand the group’s blend of Afro-Cuban and traditional African sounds as a rare gift of international music, and from there begin listening. In a positive turn of events, the outfit has completed a new album, and it’s as solid an entry point as anything in their unusually sturdy discography; honoring one of the group’s original vocalists who sadly passed last November, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng is out March 31 on World Circuit.

The story is that Orchestra Baobab started breaking through internationally just in time to get eclipsed at home by Mbalax, a newer Senegalese sound, which quickly came to be personified in the World Music scene by their younger countryman Youssou N’Dour. By 1987 Baobab had broken up, and while they’d cut a slew of vinyl records and tapes, their subsequent reputation grew primarily through ’93’s Bamba (a combo of ’80’s Mouhamadou Bamba and ’81’s Si Bou Odja on one CD) and the celebrated Pirates Choice from ’82, though it didn’t get a US release until ’01 through World Circuit/ Nonesuch.

The Paris-based West African-focused label Syllart Productions compiles a ton of Baobab’s ’70s material onto the La Belle Époque 2CD and it’s equally exhaustive second volume, but in terms of pro production their best sounding set of that decade is surely On Verra Ça: The 1978 Paris Sessions. Those wanting to soak up Baobab at an early stage are encouraged to seek out the Dakar Sound label’s ’98 CD N’Wolof, which features Wolof griot vocalist Laye M’Boup.

Pirates Choice’s reissue was so well-received that it helped inspire a return to activity. Specialist in All Styles arrived in 2002, produced by N’Dour (alongside Nick Gold) and flaunting guest vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, then at the peak of his popularity as a member of the Buena Vista Social Club. The appearance emphasized Baobab’s already prominent Afro-Cuban roots and solidified their newfound popularity. In 2008, Made in Dekar emerged with no slippage of quality amid tangible growth.

Over the years, Baobab has chalked-up lineup changes. For Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, the core of the group consists of vocalists Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis and saxophonists Issa Cissoko and Thierno Koite as the rhythm is provided by Sidibe on timbales, Charlie Ndiaye on bass, and Mountaga Koite on congas. Additionally, Abdouleye Cissoko strums the kora, Wilfried Zinzou blows the trombone, and Rene Sowatche picks the guitar.

Opener “Foulo” offers the blend of urgency and relaxed flair that provides a major component in the group’s style. In large part through production values they deserve, the combination is only heightened on the albums they’ve made since reconvening; the vocals here are warm and the horn playing rich as the strings of the kora, a new element in Baobab’s instrumental recipe, further illuminate the sonic equation.

“Fayinkounko” follows in similar fashion, with the simultaneous intricacy and infectiousness in the band’s momentum a wonder to behold. “Natalia” raises the intensity through a bolder weave of kora, Western-tinged guitar, vocal harmony, harder hitting conga, more prominent bass, and a tidy sax solo. Through it all, the band’s assured glide is a prevalent as ever, and the conciseness reverberates like a potential single.

Courtesy of a guest spot by Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô, “Magnokouto” brings the vocals to the forefront, though there is still room for a flurry of kora and some gutsy trombone action. What’s impressive is how Cheikh Lô’s appearance registers not as a calculated attempt at increasing retail fortunes but as a completely natural development from inside national borders; then again, Ibrahim Ferrer’s dropping-in on Specialist in All Styles was also deftly handled, so it appears Baobab can’t lose.

“Mariama” brings the kora to the forefront and exudes a more traditional aura, the change emphasizing the group’s long-present multifaceted nature. A whole lot of admittedly killer African music is the achievement of what are essentially dance bands, but Baobab continually hone a social music of wider breadth.

This traditional vibe extends to the beginning of “Woulinewa,” but the track quickly shifts gears and delivers Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng its deepest groove yet, the rhythmic engine propulsive while maintaining a proficient sense of control. Meanwhile, the horns riff without faltering into banal vamping, and when it’s time to solo it comes with the skill of a jazzman.

“Sey” increases the groove machine’s tempo as early vocalist Thione Seck, having left for a long and fruitful solo career, returns to the Baobab fold after an absence of over 35 years. Here he reprises his first hit with the group, and listening to it on La Belle Époque Vol. 2, the song’s popularity is quickly comprehensible.

Never hesitant to rerecord a well-known tune from their book (Made in Dakar is loaded with them), Baobab’s success rate at this maneuver is remarkable, but maybe not so surprising given the occasionally tangible Jamaican influence in their sound (I’m thinking specifically of the Skatalites here). This “Sey” update doesn’t better the original, but no way does it take a back seat. A unifying factor is the retention of youthfulness in Seck’s voice.

From there, the set rolls into the homestretch, the Afro-Cuban angle increased in “Caravana” and injected with soldering sax and rolling, clean guitar notes. The kora lends glistening cascades to “Douga”’s unhurried pace, as “Alekouma” returns to a traditional ambiance for an exceptionally pretty and emotionally resonant close. Three albums into their second stretch and Orchestra Baobab are as sharp as ever; in fact, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng might just be the best of the bunch.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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