Out of West Africa

The legendary Orchestra Baobab has reunited and is bringing its Pan-African sound to San Francisco

The vibrant port city of Dakar has inspired some of the world's most gifted black musicians, from popular Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour to American jazz legend John Coltrane. In 1970, an 11-piece group of vocalists, percussionists, string players, and a saxophonist got together to explore a fresh fusion of laid-back Cuban song styles and Pan-African influences at a regular gig at Baobab, a trendy club in the heart of the metropolis. In no time, Orchestra Baobab ruled the West African pop scene.

Before disbanding in 1985, the group recorded more than 20 albums, many of which were bootlegged and distributed internationally to world-music collectors, whose rabid interest elevated the classic LPs to cult status. So hopes were high for an enthusiastic response to last year's CD reissue of the 1982 recording Pirate's Choice. Indeed, both fans and critics hailed the disc as a four-star effort, which prompted many of the group's original members to come together for a reunion tour and to record Specialist in All Styles, a new album co-produced by N'Dour and slated for a September release.

These men in black play music that's out of this world.
Christina Jaspars
These men in black play music that's out of this world.

Orchestra Baobab is well versed in contemporary and traditional music from its various members' native lands, which include far-flung regions of Senegal, Mali, Morocco, and Togo. Yet the group's real appeal lies in its masterful variations on familiar Afro-Cuban motifs. A front line of five male vocalists provides a mesmerizing melodic lead, around which the rhythm section (percussion and acoustic bass) ebbs and flows in sultry, hip-swaying waves. Tenor saxophonist Issa Cissoko adds full-bodied riffs and patient solos, while guitarist Barthelemy Atisso -- the widely acknowledged superstar of the group -- weaves a stunning latticework of single-note explorations that reflects the bold tunefulness of jazz, R&B, and reggae-rock. In the end, Baobab's rare integration of Pan-African genres is one-of-a-kind.

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