The Senegalese Orchestra Baobab has long wowed Western audiences, but their home crowd is catching on

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The Independent Culture

Barthelemy Attisso is a lawyer from Togo, for more than 20 years now the head of a successful practice specialising in commercial law. Dressed in an impeccably tailored black suit and a silver grey tie, he's leaning over a little table in a television studio deep inside the VRT building in Brussels, writing out a list of names on the back of an A4 sheet of that day's media, travel and restaurant itinerary.

It's a list that includes some of the finest singers in Africa – Rudy Gomis, Laye Mboup, Thione Seck – 11 in all, and like Attisso, all members at one time or another of Senegal's most enduring musical export, Orchestra Baobab.

No wonder people call it Africa's greatest band, albeit a band that evaporated in the heat of a new generation of artists in the mid-Eighties – the likes of Youssou N'Dour and his Etoile de Dakar, who pointed the musical compass away from Baobab's warm, unhurried, luxurious Afro-Cuban sound and towards the harder urban dance grooves of M'balax.

But scroll down to 2001, when Baobab step out onto the stage together for the first time in 16 years in London, sounding as fresh and as rich as they had at their peak, when classic albums such as 1982's Pirate's Choice were recorded. What began as a one-off celebration concert has now become an Indian summer and second career.

Baobab's guitarist and musical arranger, Attisso is one of Africa's most distinctive players; the 2001 reunion was dependent upon his involvement. But between 1985 and 2001 he never even picked up a guitar, let alone bent a string. He smiles. "I'm a lawyer," he explains. "When I tour, someone takes over the office and when I come back I continue working." He leans back, studies his hands, "I have to work at it each time we tour."

The clients of Attisso's law firm are going to have to wait a little longer for the boss to return because Orchestra Baobab is embarking on a world tour that kicked off this week in the UK to support Made In Dakar, the acclaimed new album that returns the band to its roots.

Sitting with Attisso is one of the band's original singers, Balla Sidibe, whose high keening vocals graces many a Baobab classic. Sidibe gravitated to thecapital in 1965 from the southern Senegalese town of Casamance, and was soon singing with the Star Band, then Senegal's biggest musical draw, in the Miami nightclub in Dakar.

The Star Band's boss, Ibra Kasse, is an important figure in the Baobab story. "It wasn't coincidence that brought us together," insists Attisso, "There was the Star Band, and they were the best. If you didn't improve, you were out."

Kasse's did allow his artists some freedom – and when Sidibe started performing Cuban classics in his native Mandinka, he engendered the pan-African fusion of Orchestra Baobab that was to come.

As far as Attisso's influences go, he listened "to everything. Folk music, rock, jazz. BB King, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Django Reinhardt... I studied the style and practised it all to have it in my fingers, playing along with the records."

By the Seventies the Orchestra had found its name, identity and fame at The Baobab, a smart new club in the heart of the European quarter. Attisso, then a young law student, had been picked by the Star Band's saxman Baro Ndiaye –along with a batch of the younger Star Band players including Sidibe – to play in the Baobab's house band. Their sound would overturn the dominance of Cuban music and by fusing its modern instrumentation with the native Griot song tradition, point African music to its future.

"The Star Band was vivid and modern," remembers Attisso, mixing it with the traditional, as Baobab did, was unique." It changed everything, marking the band as pioneers and drawing a huge audience

That glorious tenure at the Baobab lasted five years and yielded a string of classic LPs, including five recorded in one mammoth session. In 1978 they recorded a couple of albums during a six-month stay in Paris, returning to take up a profitable residency at a club called the Ngalam, but after the Pirate's Choice recordings in the early Eighties, the band's tenure at the forefront of Senegalese music was overtaken by the Mbalax phenomenon. Over the next two decades, it was left to the international market to give them a Second Life, as copies of the album found their way onto Western turntables.

Six years after the 2001 reunion, the expanded release of Pirates Choice and their first "comeback album" Specialist in All Styles, their second album of new recordings confirms the band's enduring power almost 40 years after they first came together. "Specialist in All Styles was the setting and Made in Dakar is the confirmation," says Attisso, with obvious satisfaction. As for the future, "there is a lot of stuff to come out, many, many old songs that aren't really known," says Attisso, "And new songs to go with them."

True to form, Made In Dakar was recorded in less than two weeks in Youssou N'Dour's studio, and, perhaps more than Specialist In All Styles, it feels like a real homecoming. After their world tour, the band will be settling back down into the Senegalese groove with a string of nights at their new regular nightclub venue, Just4U. You can almost feel The Baobab engine humming beneath the African night skies.

And as the country's young rap and hip-hop generation tune in to The Baobab experience, you might ask: could they be at the forefront of another revolution in Senegalese music?

Orchestra Baobab play three nights at the Jazz Café, London NW1 (020-7534 6955), 18 to 20 November; "Made in Dakar" is out now on World Circuit

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