Photo copyright by Youri Lenquette
Orchestra Baobab live, June 2008
How many guitarists will tear the head off a Bach fugue as prelude to a song? No, not Ozzy Osborne! Other than John Williams or Julian Bream, probably only Barthelemy Attiso, as an intro to "N'Diaye," a track on MADE IN DAKAR, the album which Orchestra Baobab are touring to promote. The celestial movement of Bach's warm-up exercises slips perfectly into Attiso's fluid style. This was their third visit to the Bay Area, their second to Yoshi's which they have clearly outgrown.
Asked about the founder of the group, Latfi Benjeloun, rhythm guitarist and designated English-speaker, said, "Abdoulaye M'Boup, former leader of the band, was my spiritual dad. He was one of those people who really believed in a united Africa. In the 60s, before the independence of many African countries, he had a band with Malians, Nigerians, Senegalese: he made the mix. And you can find something like United Africa in here: Rudi Gomis comes from Guinée-Bissau; I am from Morocco. Issa and his brothers come from Mali (Issa Cissoko and his brother Thierno Koite play saxes; another brother, Mountaga Koite is on percussion), Barthelemy comes from Togo -- it's United Africa." As part of their storming the Bay Area this week, Baobab played live on KPFA radio on Friday morning on David McBurnie's show. McBurnie asked Benjeloun about the Cuban influence often heard in their music. "Cuban music is just a mix of African music with the classical traditions from Europe, we just have taken back something that was our own," says Latfi. McBurnie asked about the music he listens to at home. "There is a lot of music coming out -- so much, but you know Lalo Keba Drame? He is a Senegalese kora player I enjoy." "--How about Gnawa, the spiritual music of Morocco?" asked Mr McB. "Gnawa was the music of my parents, and you know, sometimes you have a distance from the music of your parents." And about the tour: "This is our third US tour and for us we really enjoy New York and San Francisco," Latfi replies. "Orchestra Baobab is a medicine, anti-stress medicine, so come out and dance with us!" And dance we did in the cramped aisles of Yoshi's. The only one with room to swing her arms was Yoshi herself, a 60ish Japanese lady with a silk scarf who waved it about like a drowning swimmer clutching seaweed in the middle of the club. Though she is more anxious to get drinks on tables than have a dance floor we waited until the end of the show for a beer to arrive. Baobab were polished smooth from the start and ready for action. Issa who was either drunk or stoned was pointing at women in the audience and gesticulating wildly but always managed to deliver his sax part on cue. This time out his brother Thierno on alto sax was more prominent and did some fine solos, urged on by Barthelemy's exceptional playing. We also heard more from the percussionists, so overall the band was stronger than on the previous tour, which was itself magnificent (Last time I managed to get a table next to Attiso's monitor and heard his every note). It's hard for a band this good to raise the bar, but we expected the best and they delivered. Though there was not much to Oakland in the nineteenth century we did have one famous resident at least, Isadora Duncan, and Yoshi channeled her as the band lifted her onto the stage and she continued her silly scarf waving antics and finally did an Isadora when she fell over backwards into the timbales. Most of Baobab's tunes fit in the Latin bag. "Sukutun" could be mistaken for "Yiri Yiri bon," and I found myself singing "Baila la bamba" during "Cabral." There's cha cha cha and many more rhythms there, but as John McCord of Down Home Music said to me, Whatever rhythm they play they make it their own. Everyone was on their feet for most of the set. Assane Mboup and Issa did a silly strutting cock dance together, but were not the only old guys having a blast. The crowd got into a frenzy during "Bul ma min" when we were all boogeying in the aisles. It was good we were up because the waitress ditched a tray of drinks over our table. Talk about dancing in the nick of time. Attiso brought some heavy licks to his Les Paul, especially in his Echoplex solo during "Dee moo wor." I noticed bits of Django, Wes Montgomery and Jeff Beck in his playing. And a lot that is uniquely Attiso.
ORCHESTRA BAOBAB IN CONCERT
at the Fillmore, San Francisco, 10 July 2002
Having no expectations was the best preparation for the Orchestra Baobab concert at the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco. You can count on several things, however, from that austere institution: lousy sound, flat ambience, and high prices. And, most of all, being treated like cattle ("A quick search for pepper-spray and knives in your waistband," said the perky punk at the door patting everyone down). Since Clear Channel bought up the Bill Graham Organization and took over most of the venues in the Bay Area, the music scene here has been dire. To escape the opening act I was forced into the upstairs bar. A small combo was channeling the psychedelic posters on the wall and creating a mish-mash of aimless noise on synth and didjeridoo. The bass and drummer had clearly borrowed instruments for the gig. The Duchess and I headed downstairs. One blessing was the dance-floor was thinly populated because most Baobab fans are middle-aged geezers who either forgot the date or have had their fill of The Fillmore. NO ONE was dancing: that is the unique allure of the Fillmore's "dance" floor which has had so much beer spilled on it you can hardly move your feet.
As you know, Baobab issued a handful of dreamy albums in the late seventies. They were the house band at the Baobab Club in Dakar which folded in 1977 after a change of owners. After moving briefly to Jandeer Nightclub, the band went to Paris but failed to click and, after a period in Marseille, returned home despondent. Members died or left as Senegalese taste moved away from the Cuban-inflected style of Baobab's music to the more revved-up sound of Mbalax.
In 1989 Günter Gretz traveled to Senegal and met Balla Sidibe. He arranged to have the classic tracks from their final 1982 session issued on the legendary PIRATE'S CHOICE album (so-called because the original cassette had been bootlegged so many times) by World Circuit in London.
Last year surviving members of the original band got together, including guitarist Barthelemy Atisso (now a lawyer in Togo), Issa Cissoko (who had continued playing sax in other Senegalese bands), and singers Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis. Though they hadn't played together in 15 years they had all the hits well in hand from their large repertoire of the same. They played the Royal Festival Hall in London and are now reaping survivors' benefits, touring and playing to great acclaim. After a shaky start on "Bul ma min" they slid into one of the all-time great tracks, "Utru Horas," a sleepy late-night groove with soulful sax (I can't count the number of times I have lain on the floor, or in my hammock and drifted off to this song.).
Issa acted the youngest of the band members: he mugged and held up his arms for applause every time he finished playing a sax solo. While the other members had matching tropical print shirts, he wore his own outfit with a knit rasta hat. They picked the tempo up for "Digone nga ma," which came out originally on UN NUIT AU JANDEER in 1977.
Mostly Baobab concentrated on the material recorded in Paris in 1978: "El son te llama," "On verra ça," and "Mi son," from volume one, and "Digon Gama" that was originally on BAOBAB À PARIS volume 2: their most Cuban cuts. Rudy Gomis made little clavé sounds with his tongue and cheeks anticipating the timbales fills or trap drum shuffles.
The glory, however, went to the studious, bespectacled Atisso who soloed all night long, working countless changes on the chords on his Gibson guitar (which, true to Fillmore form was screechingly loud). His melodic lines have great timing and often float off into another space beyond the metre of the song. The vocal mikes were also too hot, but Rudy Gomis (who is fluent in English) was a fine ringmaster, adding mouth-percussion and little exhortations throughout. Balla Sidibe was behind him in the shadow, playing timbales and singing chorus and there were two younger singers, "brothers" of Gomis, who sang in that high complaining Islamic style, which is great when it's not over-miked.
There were no gimmicks. The original recordings used Echoplex on the vocals but Baobab's live show was sonically unaugmented, apart from the Famous Fillmore Feedback which occurred twice, and the wah-wah pedal on "Sibou Odia." There was a cloud of smoke at one point, either from a bush of skunkweed that flared up stageside, a malfunctioning dry ice machine, or else someone had left open the back door and the perennial San Francisco summer fog made it inside. The band members were relaxed and having a good time. If only the crowd had been dancing instead of glued to the floor by the spilled beer (Miller Genuine Draft!! -- whatever that is), and if only there had been more than two African faces there instead of disheveled slackers, it could have been a magical night. I felt years younger even if I wasn't suddenly grooving in Dakar 25 years ago. I thought back to the music scene here in 1978, when Baobab were trying to conquer Paris, and wondered what effect they might have had if they had played a night at Winterland, say between Television and Pere Ubu. I don't know. Maybe their time is really now. I feel privileged to have finally seen them.
They ended with Attiso's catchy "Gnawou" for which they had written a French chorus, "Ça c'est bon, c'est bon, ça c'est bon." They finally got the audience singing along and gradually faded away to silence leaving us holding the tune.