Begun 50 years ago, when the shrewd owner of Club Baobab (so named because it was built around a baobab tree) in Dakar poached members of the house Star Band from competitor Club Miami, Orchestra Baobab became legends for their unique blending of styles. With an influx of collaborators from different countries, not to mention a constant flow of travelers from around the world stopping in at the club while in the port city, new elements were always being added to the Baobab melting pot during the band’s formative years. Highlife, griot, international pop flavors, and Afro-Latin music from Cuba and elsewhere were all incorporated, while the big band was filled with amazing musicians like saxophonist Bro N’Diaye and guitarist Barthelemy Attisso.
By the early ‘70s, Orchestra Baobab had made a name for itself throughout Africa as the result of touring. However, they had failed to make inroads in the west. It wasn’t until 1989, when British label World Circuit issued Pirates’s Choice, a collection of recordings from 1982, that Western ears, now attuned to African music as a result of the success of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, picked up on the band, who at this point was defunct for all intents and purposes.
In 2001, World Circuit persuaded Orchestra Baobab to reunite for a world tour in conjunction with a reissue of Pirate’s Choice. Spurred on by the success of those shows (I caught one in Columbus and it was amazing), the band recorded a new album, Specialist in All Styles, the next year. The band has made only two albums in the intervening 18 years, so this new vinyl pressing of Specialist (to mark the band’s 50th anniversary) on World Circuit, is a friendly reminder of how truly special Orchestra Baobab was and is.
Like everything they’ve done, Specialist is a meshing of those sounds that first informed them as well as an influx of new ideas, often the result of the influx of new members. African music usually gets filed under “world music,” but Baobab truly make world music. Led by Attisso’s sinewy, and at times, surfy guitar, “Bul ma miin” gets things going at a brisk clip. Here, Ndiouga Dieng sings of how “showing affection does not equate to being weak,“ accentuated by the strength of his voice. It’s his vocals that shine on “Dee Moo Woor” too, a lament about his father’s death and how life can be disappointing and cruel. But heavier material aside, Baobab are at their best when they swing, as best personified by “Jiin Ma Jiin Ma,” a literal call to the dance floor. But perhaps the real showstopper is “Hommage a Tonton Ferrer.” The song features the guest vocals of the Buena Vista Social Club’s Ibrahrim Ferrer and Baobab’s old rival Youssou N’Dour, as well as Dieng and Attisso also stepping up to the mic. It’s more sultry than swinging, but no less infectious.
Now, as when this record came out, Specialist reveals Orchestra Baobab to be a truly unique entity. Even if one has no idea what these songs are about or from where their inspiration came, one can’t help but feel their allure on a visceral level. That this band from Dakar is known the world over shows that some things truly need no translation.