A European enthusiast's deep desire to time travel has brought Senegal's Orchestra Baobab here tonight. The World Circuit label's Nick Gold, alongside Youssou N'Dour, helped reunite this band who had their first heyday in 1970s Dakar's elite Baobab club, but disbanded, deemed yesterday's men, in 1985. As with the lost stars of Swinging 1970s, Addis Ababa now back touring as Ethiopiques, Havana's Buena Vista Social Club, and 1950s Algeirs' Jewish-Arab El Gusto, most of the men who had captured a moment of cultural white heat were still around. So in 2001, the Orchestra was reconvened, here at the Barbican. Warm, wistfully imagined old Dakar nights glowed again.
For all the implicit nostalgia, it is a radical moment that is being revived. Specialist In All Styles was the apt name for the 2002 comeback album of a band who fused Dakar's dominant Afro-Cuban sound with Portuguese Creole, Congolese rumba, American soul and native Senegalese sounds. Though superseded by N'Dour's more indigenous mbalax pop sound during the 1970s, N'Dour never hid his debt to them, repaid now. Though the Baobab is long-closed, the Grammy-nominated, globally popular 21st-century Orchestra can be found at another chic Dakar club most Saturdays, absorbing just enough contemporary sounds to keep their own alive.
There's an early treat when support act Kasse Mady Diabate, a veteran Malian singer with a beseeching wail, is joined by a surprise guest-star, ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyate. Then it's the nine-piece Orchestra's turn to get the normally sedate Barbican crowd on their feet. The steady, busy pulse of pre-Castro Havana still underpins their music. Their appeal to successive generations of Dakar's club-going elite lies in the sophisticated comfort of their sound. But this latter-day big band is never just easy listening. "Ndongo Daara" adds 1960s soul show-band steps, Charlie Ndiaye's agitated bass, and ticking, one-note electric guitar chimes from the Orchestra's leader Barthelemy Attisso. "On Verra Ca"'s throbbing soul vocal and choppy rhythm is joined by the car-horn parp of urban sax. The lulling harmonies of "Aline" (written by Attisso for his wife) are followed by "Ndeleng Ndeleng"'s high-end groove and railroad clatter, sounding like a warped Western movie theme
It is Seydou Koite, wearing black pantaloons, beret and shades with gunslinger attitude, whose alto sax pumps the blood into this music, most of all on 1970s signature tune "Ndiaay". There are hints here of the pulsing groove of European contemporaries Kraftwerk, of an imagined 1940s Havana, and funk wah-wah guitar. They chuck in a blast of "La Bamba" here, a few bars of "Take Five" there, and rationed electric guitar wails recalling Carlos Santana. It never explodes, but simmers at an indefinitely danceable tempo.
The biggest compliment you can pay Orchestra Baobab in 2009 is that they haven't changed. They have simply mastered the cosmopolitan sound they forged almost 40 years ago. Dated old news when they split, it feels timelessly effective tonight.