Felt a bit on the outside looking in with the rapturous reception given the two-CD deluxe reissue of Orchestra Baobabs Pirates Choice last year. Not that I dont like Baobab, far from it -- aside from being one of the crucial Senegalese bands from 1970 to 1985, theyre probably my favorite early West African band, period. I was thrilled the original lineup re-formed to tour after 15 years apart, and totally primed when word came that the new Specialist in All Styles was heading down the pipeline.
But the original Pirates Choice always sounded too limited and one-dimensional, even though it was deemed the last strong strand of Senegalese pops Cuban roots before Youssou NDours mbalax explosion. Too often, purity of roots has become a formula for freeze-framing the music and avoiding any of that nasty new bastard hybrid stuff coming along. It ignores the general rule that what now is sedately classic was once loud, unruly and rough around the edges, qualities that happen to be prime reasons why Bamba, a compilation of the two early-80s LPs leading to Pirates Choice, is my favorite Orchestra Baobab CD. The opening of Mouhamadou Bamba -- Barthelemy Attisos reverbed-out guitar trills into Thione Secks heartbreak falsetto and glorious bamba, bamba backing vocals -- is simply one of the most spine-tingling minutes of music Ive heard in my life. Crucially, the songs are varied, so Bamba rocks and reggaes and Cubans while Attiso makes like an old-school dub sound scientist -- just a man and his guitar, amp and noise toys on a mission to see what unfailingly musical sounds he can wring from his knobs, switches and pedals.
Attiso starts off Specialist in All Styles with a direct hook riff that radiates familiarity, instantly creating an aura of old friends picking up where they left off. Ndiouga Dieng tops the vocal blend of Bul Ma Miin before Issa Cissokho rips off one of his patented King Curtis of Senegal tenor-sax solos over the galloping rhythm guitar thats another signature Baobab sonic trademark. Baobab sounds intent on living up to the CD title, a clever take on Senegalese barbershop ads (nice graphics, too), as the easy, swaying Sutukun hints at Jamaican and soul touches behind Balla Sidibes forceful vocals. Diengs vulnerability cuts through the slow, tortured Dee Moo Woor before Attiso breaks out with some heavy vibrato wah-wah over a strong percussion flurry at the end. Jiin Ma Jiin Ma is the first time Rudy Gomis takes us down to deep clave city, and Assane Mboups falsetto flavors the innocent, almost Latin-tinged 50s R&B of Ndongoy Daara. Sidibe wrote On Verra Ca in 1976 as a set-break riff for band introductions (shades of Cissy Strut) at Dakars Club Balafon, and the answering harmonies and magnetic, roundlike riff still make resistance to sing-along surrender an exercise in futility.
One key to the style parade is that vocally Baobab boast specialists for all styles but dont feel any need to feature all four all the time. They just add the singers that serve the song, like Mboups falsetto as the finishing harmony touch to the last chorus line of Dee Moo Woor. When you factor in instrumentalists as strong as Attiso and Cissokho alongside the range of vocal options, you see how deceptive it is to fixate on any one aspect of Baobab. And in fact Specialist in All Styles begins to lose steam after On Verra Ca, when it goes too plainly Afro-Cuban. The trumpeted cross-generation, cross-continental joining of Youssou NDour and Buena Vista veterano Ibrahim Ferrer with Baobab on Hommage a Tonton Ferrer slips by all but unnoticed, and the closing Gnawoe generates low-level impact only because La Bamba riff variants are pretty safe.
Ultimately, Specialist in All Styles is a satisfying, very comfortable return geared to gentle, in-the-pocket grooves. It doesnt have the abandon and energy that drove Bamba, but theyre 20 years older now, so why should it? And it really doesnt matter, anyway, because theres always been something about Orchestra Baobab -- a mystifying, cant-put-your-finger-on-it x factor -- thats resisted reduction to dry detail.
Baobabs squad of singers collectively have something that renders superfluous all those details about who comes from what province of Senegal or what other West African nations they hail from. Or which singer is regarded as the master of what Cuban-derived style or comes from a griot family, or who sings in Wolof. Or whether you can even understand any of the languages they sing in. Orchestra Baobab are really just specialists at getting in deep to touch some universal human chord . . . which is only the most important specialty of all.
ORCHESTRA BAOBAB | Specialist in All Styles (World CircuitNonesuch)