Laying down the law
In the Eighties, Orchestra Baobab's position as Senegal's premier band was usurped. But now they've returned
Friday 09 July 2004
There aren't many guitarists who would admit to preferring law courts over a music career, but Barthelemy Attisso of Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab proffers this tantalising nugget before the band are due on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival: "Music was always a second thing to me. My aim was to be a lawyer."
Orchestra Baobab's meteoric rise to international prominence in recent years has matched only that of the Buena Vista Social Club. The two are connected through the UK producer Nick Gold, whose dedication to digging up classic bands from forgotten eras has become legendary. When Orchestra Baobab started to fade from view in the mid-Eighties, Attisso handed his Gibson Les Paul guitar to a friend and moved back to Togo - a small country next to Ghana - to practice law amongst barrister colleagues who had never known about his musical alter ego. "When the popular musical style changed, I wanted to stop," he sighs.
Orchestra Baobab had been Senegal's premier band from the early Seventies to the mid Eighties. "We were the first band to transform traditional African music into something more modern," states Attisso proudly. "We learnt how to do salsa with African music." But their musical style gradually slipped out of favour.The upcoming "mbalax" style as pioneered by Youssou N'Dour was far more frenetic and utilised the awesome power of the traditional sabar drum, giving it a street appeal that Baobab could never hope to achieve. Their music had always been the music of the privileged classes, and was seen as a throwback to the colonial era.
"Our careers came to an end, not because of Youssou N'Dour, but because of his music," states Attisso with a wry smile on his face. "We were the first band to do mbalax, and we did it very well, but there were too many percussionists and too much noise. If we'd have continued to do that style, then we would have stayed on the scene, but it was because we remained ourselves that we were eventually rediscovered."
In Montreux that night, the audience in the Miles Davis Hall quickly fall prey to the seductive old charms of Orchestra Baobab's sensuous Afro-Cuban rhythms. With an impressive African triple bill including Rokia Traore and Oumou Sangare, these elder statesmen more than hold their own. They've returned to the smart suits they once wore at their musical alma mater, Dakar's famous Baobab Club - a look that is more captivating than the traditional costumes they wore at Womad a couple of years ago.
A consummate professional, Attisso doesn't once unbutton his jacket, whilst several members gradually succumb to the heat and strip down. His trademark spacey guitar solos are treated with rapturous applause, but the grey-suited, bespectacled guitarist seems to take it all in his stride. It's hard to imagine that he had to re-learn the guitar again once Nick Gold had tracked him down, but this is just what he did. "When I started to play the guitar again, it was as if I'd never played. I told Nick Gold that I couldn't play, but he said that if I didn't rejoin the group, then they wouldn't be able to perform. So I listened to the old recordings and learnt how to play again. Listening to those old records made me realise that we were 20 years ahead of our time."
Baobab released 12 albums on vinyl between 1970 and 1985, though Attisso divulges that they made very little money out of it. "We've learnt a lesson that you don't just need talent to succeed, you need luck. In our first incarnation we were good, but we didn't have the luck that we have today." This good fortune has translated into two internationally successful albums: Pirates Choice, a re-issue double CD from their 1982 sessions, and Specialist in all Styles.
It has also meant an exhaustive tour schedule taking in America, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Europe. As a live experience, few can beat Orchestra Baobab in terms of old-fashioned musical ability and riveting stage presence, and their new album will be hotly anticipated.
Orchestra Baobab play Somerset House, London WC2 (020-7960 4242; www.somerset-house.org.uk), with the Afro Cuban All Stars on 19 July
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