Senégalese group Orchestra Baobab is a legend in its own lifetime, influencing generations of musicians and entertaining countless Afro-Cuban music lovers. Despite ups and downs in the group’s forty-five year history these dynamic and virtuosic musicians have continued to produce groundbreaking new music. Their latest album, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit records) commemorates one of the band’s founder members and vocalists who died in 2016. His son Alpha now sings in the band, which is led by his old band-mate Balla Sidibe from Casamance. On the eve of their latest European tour Rhythm Passport was granted an interview with Orchestra Baobab to piece together some of the events that contributed to the longevity of this West African musical institution.
Orchestra Baobab formed in1970 when some musicians were lured from The Star Band to work at Club Baobab in the capital Dakar. We began by asking the group about the musical environment in Senégal at that time.
What were the primary musical influences when you first started out?
“Cuban music had influenced us a lot because it was all around at the time – on the radio, at the club associations, weddings, baptisms and so on. You couldn’t escape from listening to it! That definitely inspired us. But we also had the idea of wanting to create a few things that were different from that for a more or less authentic musical identity that was specific to us as a group”.
Yes, it’s easy to see how your musical identites such as the North Senégalese Wolof culture were important to the story of your success. And from the start the group also included musicians from as far afield as Mali, Togo and Morocco – quite multi-cultural! How did that affect the music?
“Our cultures have been combined by the musical inspiration of each musician’s talent in their particular role; everyone brought not just their playing, but also cultural influences that come from their own ethnicity.
And what was life like as a musician in the 1970s?
It was difficult to be a musician at that time. There were some people who were there just for the sake of pleasure. We never had any social security or medical cover. The life of musicians began to improve gradually, but for that it was, and still is, necessary to fight”.
Despite this instability, the rise of the group was meteoric, with over twenty albums released up to the mid 1980s. But then Mbalax was born. Made fashionable by Youssou N’Dour (himself a former singer in The Star Band), this new musical style dislocated the group. Were you upset by what had happened or jealous of Youssou N’Dour’s domination of a new style that you were not a part of?
“We were not jealous but surprised by the meteoric rise [of Mbalax] that all Senegal welcomed. At that time he himself [Youssou n’Dour] knows that we started playing this music without his name, but the name of the Mbalax and his influence were very strong”.
Gradually each member left to make his own way in a new cultural environment. Orchestra Baobab disbanded in 1987. But that is not the end of the story. Can you tell us what happened next?
“Youssou himself helped [he produced and guested on the album] and participated with Nick with the reconstitution of the group in the year 2000, and the CD ‘Specialist in All Styles’ came out in 2002 on Nick’s label World Circuit. The return of Orchestra Baobab with Nick Gold is a proud moment of the group”.
That definitive album seemed to make a statement reinforcing the group’s original idea – to play music that everyone could identify with.
Yes, we had always wanted to reinforce our musical concept for the whole world. Thanks to the richness of our cultural heritage, our ethnic groups’ multi-cultural events help us inspire more. As we said, “chacun y met son grain” [each person added his own grain]. And, to go back to Youssou, he has been appreciated not only in the European circuit but all over the world. Mr Barack Obama visited Senégal during his tenure, and at the reception Youssou was present. The US president immediately paid all his attention to him, saying to his wife, “Here is the star Senégalese singer; Youssou N’Dour is strong!”
Since that rocky period in the 1980s, Orchestra Baobab re-established itself within the West African popular music scene, producing albums of new songs as well as unreleased material from the 1970s. Things have improved for the band in various ways. The members tell us:
“Luckily Baobab has had the support of the first lady for these last three years”.
The ‘First Lady Foundation’ was set up by the wife of the president of Senégal Mrs. Marème Sall and is “driven by a simple ambition: to improve the daily life of the most disadvantaged” of her compatriots.
So coming to the present and your latest album, can you tell us a bit about the group as it is today?
“Well, we still have four original members in the group including vocalist Balla Sidibe, Charles Antoine Ndiaye, the bassist [also from Casamance]; Cissokho Issa [saxophone] and Mamadou Mountaga Koite[drums] are both from Malian Maninka families of griots”.
There is a new sound too, with the introduction of kora player Abdouleye Cissoko from Casamance. Trombonist Wilfried Zinzou joins the saxes and young guitarist Rene Sowatche – both are from Benin. On Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng there are also guest appearances from Baifal singer Cheikh Lo, and Thione Seck, who left Orchestra Baobab in 1979. With reference to this new album, is it different recording nowadays?
“For the artist, the process of recording in the studio has not changed much over the years, but each time it is the process at the beginning of a project that changes. This is because it necessitates endless research and repetition, to make and to re-make. A new album is in progress because after the last recording sessions we had kept some titles over, and will add others for the next CD. It will be revealed as soon as we begin to work on the ideas. Let’s avoid revealing the ingredients that will go into Orchestra Baobab’s pot for fear of losing the flavour – the public will then appreciate the surprise!”
And finally, can you give us some tips on some of Senégal’s rising stars? It’s always good to get news ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’, as we say!
“We have several young Senégalese artists who have begun to emerge. From the family of our missing colleagues two of their children are up-and-coming – Momo Dieng and Pape Malick Dieng. We also have Wally Seck, whose father Thione Seck sings on the track Sey on our latest album in tribute to Ndiouga Dieng”.
And so we come full circle. There is something deeply satisfying about hearing how new and older generations of musicians interact and influence one another from the past to the present, and if this continues perhaps Orchestra Baobab will carry on making their own brand of Global Afro-fusion for several decades more. Let’s hope so! And if you want to hear the group when they drop into the UK you can catch them at Koko, Camden on Monday 30th October – see you there!
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