Garth Cartwright marvels at the long-lasting appeal of the Senegalese band
This article originally appeared in Songlines #126. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit: http://ift.tt/2lbcV5M
A simple, repetitive figure is picked on an electric guitar; it’s a serpentine sound and one of the most seductive in African music. Someone whistles enthusiastically, the drummer announces his arrival and the bass quietly slips in before a fat, juicy saxophone begins painting a picture of a tropical night sky. Then a voice, sleepy yet radiant, starts speak-singing. This is ‘Utrus Horas’, the opening tune on Pirates Choice, eight minutes and 43 seconds of stirring aural delight and a song that, over the past 35 years, has enchanted listeners across the world. ‘Utrus Horas’ is one of those recordings that sounds so distinctive, so evocative, it instantly conjures up images of West Africa as a land of sensual, elegiac pleasures. And the band who created this velvet smooth music of surprise and enchantment are Orchestra Baobab, an outfit who formed in Dakar, Senegal, in 1970 and who are about to release a fine new album.
Not that the Orchestra Baobab story is quite that simple. The original band came together around saxophonist Baro N’Diaye simply to play a Saturday night residency at the Baobab Club, a new Dakar club named after the famously squat West African tree. Baro poached five musicians from the Star Band – then Dakar’s most popular club band – and, with a couple of other young players, created a set that relied on both Cuban standards (Cuban dance music having gained great popularity in West Africa), alongside an infusion of West African music, encouraged by the independence movement in neighbouring Guinea for local artistry.
Baobab’s musicians found themselves creating an effortless blend of Latin and African music, and by bringing in musicians from different tribal regions they featured both Mandinka and Wolof singers who, throughout the 70s, established themselves as Senegal’s most popular band. Their fluid lineup saw a variety of musicians come and go until the core of the band was established by the late 70s: vocalists Ndiouga Dieng (a Wolof griot), Balla Sidibe and Thione Seck; saxophonist Issa Cissoko and guitarist Barthélémy Attisso from Togo.
While Baobab’s line-up continued to fluctuate – being working musicians, members would leave to join other bands or pursue different projects – their popularity remained strong and the band’s distinctive saxophone and guitar sound marked them out as something special. So much so that in 1978, they travelled to France in search of European stardom. While they enjoyed some prowess in Paris – including being hired to play at the wedding of fashion designer Pierre Cardin’s daughter – this adventure turned out to be unprofitable and the band returned to Dakar in 1979.
By now the Baobab club had closed but the band were so popular they could perform all over Senegal, commanding fees of US $4,500 a show. They regularly recorded and released cassettes and it was a 1982 cassette, soon to be known internationally as Pirates Choice, that featured the six songs that would establish Orchestra Baobab internationally. Ironically, as these songs began winning them fans in Paris and London, Orchestra Baobab were being overtaken in Senegal by a young musician who had left the Star Band to go solo: Youssou N’Dour. His more percussive, funk-influenced sound appealed to the young and Baobab desperately tried to keep up by changing their sound – even hiring two female vocalists at one point.
Yet it was not to be and, in 1987, Orchestra Baobab called it a day. By then Thione Seck had left the band and established himself as one of Senegal’s most popular solo artists while Attisso left music to set up a law practice. When the British label World Circuit released Pirates Choice in 1989, Charlie Gillett and John Peel championed Baobab on their radio shows. In 2001 World Circuit reissued it as a double CD and such was the acclaim that greeted this edition that the band’s core members, all now middle aged and settled down, agreed to reform for a European tour.
Their triumphant return to London’s Barbican Centre in May 2001 launched them onto the Western world music festival and tour circuit. Yet unlike their Parisian experience in 1978, Baobab now found large audiences cheering them across the world. They returned to the studio in 2002, releasing Specialist in All Styles album, which won two BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. Ironically, in Senegal Orchestra Baobab are now deemed old-fashioned but they continue to command a wide international following.
This month sees the band release a new album, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, in honour of one of their long-standing original vocalists who died in November 2016. For several years Dieng’s son Alpha had been a member of the band, following the griot tradition of father teaching son the techniques needed to be a master vocalist.
Ironically veteran guitarist Barthélémy Attisso has chosen to sit this one out and focus on his law firm so the band have drafted in kora player Abdouleye Cissoko from the Casamance region in southern Senegal – the first time the group have numbered a kora player in its permanent ranks but Cissoko’s rippling strings have blended seamlessly into the sound and lent a fresh dynamic. There’s also a trombonist, Wilfred Zinzou, another first for Baobab.
It is this willingness to consistently push their lush yet imaginative sound forward that stops Orchestra Baobab simply existing as a nostalgia act.
These seminal 1982 recordings are remastered here with six extra tracks (also excellent) and sleeve notes by the late, great Charlie Gillett. Perfection!
Having reformed and toured widely, a rejuvenated Orchestra Baobab entered the studio and proved they were way more than a nostalgia act. A strong return that shows the band sounding like they’d never been away. A Top of the World review in #14.
A delightful mix of new compositions with some classic hits from their 70s heyday, the band sound better than ever. The Songlines review described them as ‘the Senegalese Skatalites’ in #47.
For fans of Pirates Choice and more recent efforts, this double CD of their early stuff shows a nightclub band developing their distinctive blend of African and Latin music. Not as polished as their more famous releases but still very tasty. Reviewed in #62.
This album features few of the original members – although Thione Seck returns to sing on one song for the first time in decades while disciple Cheikh Lô also drops by – and thus features a younger line-up pushing forth a classic yet not imitative sound. An inspired effort. Reviewed in #127.
IF YOU LIKE ORCHESTRA BAOBAB, THEN TRY:
TAs with Pirates Choice, the release of this album blew minds when released by Buda and won Mahmoud Ahmed a wide following across the West. The album offers a north-east African hybrid akin to Baobab’s in its use of Latin and soul flavours while sounding even more exotic and eerie.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #126. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit: http://ift.tt/2lbcV5M
After a long, soft summer holiday in July for many people in the nordic hemisphere CAS Oslo presents THE KLFs iconic ambient house album ‘Chill Out’ (KLF Communications (1990) at the end of the month, with the norwegian godfather of techno, producer Per Martinsen a.k.a. Mental Overdrive from Tromsø guesting our local CAS host Kent Horne in the capitol.
Date and Time: Sunday 30th of July 7-9pm (doors open 6pm)
Venue: Kulturhuset LAB
Tickets: 100NOK in the door or in advance HERE. Students (student card), Juniors (under 18), Seniors (above 65) and Initial Service Norwegian Armed Forces (ID card): Half price!
Presenters: Kent Horne with artist and producer Per Martinsen (Mental Overdrive).
Audio Menu installed by Duet Audio: Cartridge: Dynavector XX2 MK2, Turntable: Dr. Feickert Blackbird, Tone arm: Jelco750 LB 12″, Preamp: 4 x Monoblocks Auralic Merak 2x800W, Integrated Amp with phono stage: Ayon Auris, Loudspeakers: Piega Classic 80.2, Interconnects: Midas Reference Silje, Speaker Cable: Midas Reference Silje, Power Conditioner: Isol-8.
I was asked to author and host a talk on ‘The Art of the Album’ for the V&A Pink Floyd Weekender in June 2017 which was quite an honour. At the end of my presentation, some attendees asked if I would publish the piece and I thought it would be a good idea considering the amount of time I had put into it! I have decided to publish it in three parts starting with the birth of the LP and its almighty significance in my own life.
The Art of the Album Part One
by Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy
Many of us first fell in love with music via the radio. The DJ turned us onto songs and if we adored a tune enough, we would buy it on a 7-inch 45 rpm single.
But when we fell in love with our first album, we realised that our affection for the pop single may have been more of a crush. For many of us, our first favourite album was an all-consuming passionate infatuation that possibly even changed our lives.
My obsession with the album began at the age of twelve, when my father gave me a hand-me-down GE Trimline portable record player (the American version of a Dansette).
With my own record player in my own room, I no longer had to listen to what my parents wanted to hear in the living room (a selection of soundtracks and early Beach Boys), nor would I be entirely reliant upon a radio DJ to select my music. Now I could choose the music that I wanted to listen to in the privacy of my own room.
But I desperately needed some records, so I headed down the street to my uncle’s house. He was on the right side of 30 and pretty cool so I thought his collection would be a good resource, my first record library. I flicked through his albums and pulled out a few by The Beatles, The Stones, Crosby Stills & Nash and then I saw one record that had a gloriously cosmic album cover and featured one song that had always piqued my interest whenever I heard it over the airwaves. It was the 1967 album by The Moody Blues: Days of Future Passed.
I brought it home and listened to it from beginning to end, drawn into the story, the unfolding narrative of the progression of a day (which I also interpreted as an evolution of a life). Starting with “The Day Begins”, ending with “Nights in White Satin”, songs linked together by orchestral interludes performed by the London Festival Orchestra, I sat and listened to this album over and over again, obsessively, and in one sitting, as a complete piece, fully immersed in its world.
Now, this album was not considered cool by my 12-year-old classmates, nor (as I later discovered) was it considered cool with the elite rock critic cognoscenti, but it didn’t matter, and frankly, it still doesn’t. This album changed my life. It deepened my love for music and it sparked a love for the album format. This experience inspired me to widen my knowledge of music, to begin record collecting, to start a radio show at the age of 14, to work in a record shop after school, to embark upon a career in music, and ultimately to start Classic Album Sundays.
A host of passionate musical affairs ensued (which I suppose you could call hi-infidelity). From the Sex Pistols album I picked up while shopping at the mall with my Mum, to the discovery of The Roland Kirk Quartet which was playing at the Boston record shop Nuggets, to albums by David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Brian Eno, Black Uhuru, Joy Division, Charles Mingus, Velvet Underground, Alice Coltrane, The Smiths, Joni Mitchell, Prince, New Order, Kate Bush, The Butthole Surfers, Miles Davis, Radiohead, Can, Massive Attack, Love, King Crimson, Van Morrison, and of course, Pink Floyd – these are some of the albums that have defined different periods of my life in such a way that my record collection can tell the story of my life better than words.
But what is it about the album that makes it such a powerful force? Why do so many of us music fans find the album format so compelling? Does the longer running time of approximately 45 minutes mean that we live with it longer, much in the way we are drawn in by and live with a long novel?
Is it because the format is a better snapshot of the artist’s then state-of-being, with all of its complexities and incongruities, and its relation to our own emotional state, than a 3-minute radio single is able to transmit? Or is it because the content of the album itself is somehow thematically interconnected and offers us a 45-minute escape into another world?
It may be one or all of these reasons, but that has more to do with the album of the last half a century, as it hasn’t always had the same significance…
Columbia Records unveiled the 33-rpm long-playing record in 1948, one year before RCA Victor unleashed the 7-inch 45 rpm single. For the most part, the LP was associated with and the chosen format for classical music which needed more time per side to store the sonic information for a symphony and the LP could hold around 20 minutes of music per side. In fact, the first twelve-inch LP was a performance of Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E Minor with the New York Philharmonic. The music dictated the format.
The LP, or album, also became the format of choice for jazz and in the Fifties, artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and the great Duke Ellington took full advantage of the format, allowing their compositions to stretch out in full concert arrangement or as a long live improvisation.
The album was also perfect for movie soundtracks and original Broadway cast recordings, some of which were their respective years’ best-selling album.
The 45-rpm single, on the other hand, carried pop music, and because it was the medium for just that, popular music, it outsold the album format for quite some time. On the other hand, pop music’s relationship with the album format was mainly one of commercial necessity.
For artists like Elvis Presley and The Beatles’, whose albums did grace the best selling album charts in the Fifties and Sixties, the album housed a collection of their singles with some filler in between. The songs were not related in any way. The hits were often loaded onto the beginning of each side, sometimes track-listings differed between the UK and US releases and sometimes completely different albums were released in the respective countries. For the most part, the album was not a complete artistic statement for these pop acts, but there was one exception: Frank Sinatra.
In 1946, Ol’ Blue Eyes released his debut, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, which was a set of four 78 rpm singles physically bound together in an ‘album’ much like a photo album which is how 10-inch 78’s were commercially presented. But it was also aurally bound together by a common mood, instrumentation, and his distinctive voice and phrasings. This ‘album’ was the first to feature a single popular singer, following in the footsteps of 78’s dedicated to the songs of a single composer. Two years later, The Voice of Frank Sinatra was released as the first ‘pop album’ on the new 33-rpm long-playing format.
Although he was popular, Frank was a serious artist who understood the difference between the frivolous pop single and the more sophisticated album format. After a career slump during which he lost most of his bobby-soxer following, he signed to Capitol Records where he was paired with arranger Nelson Riddle.
And then in 1955 he released In The Wee Small Hours, an album in which all of the songs dealt with interconnected themes mulled over while propped up at the bar after closing time: lost love, failed relationships, loneliness, and depression.
It was intentionally put together as a song cycle, or a group of songs designed to be performed as a unit, something Frank had been thinking about since his 1946 debut. He followed with other thematic albums such as Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Only the Lonely, and in this way, Sinatra foreshadowed what the album format would become for other serious-minded musicians in the next decade.
The Art of the Album Part Two coming soon…
On July 22-23, a fascinating, two-day seminar entitled ‘War, Fear, Empathy and Music’ is set to take place at SOAS, University of London
The MA Music in Development course at SOAS has partnered with Musicians without Borders (MwB), an organisation pioneering the use of music for community-building, healing and reconciliation for groups suffering from the effects of conflict and war. Successful long-term projects have been implemented by the organisations in Kosovo, Palestine, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and many more locations, where musicians and talented young people are trained to work in struggling communities as workshop leaders.
Speakers include MwB founder and director Laura Hassler, who will address the title idea, outlining the core mission of the organisation and questioning how society can hold on to hope in discouraging times; music therapist Chris Nicholson, who will outline the therapeutic aims of the project, and researcher and MwB trainer Marion Haak-Schulenburg, who will discuss how music is applied to situations touched by conflict. Research on projects in Australia and Northern Ireland will also be presented, and the weekend will close with an experimental session on MwB’s community music leadership training.
Participants are also invited to take part in a four-day training course for musicians in practical uses of community music for peacebuilding and social change.
For more information and to register for the seminar, visit the SOAS website.
Carol Hawkins, the former personal assistant of
U2 bassist Adam Clayton was jailed for seven years for embezzling 2.8m euros (£2.2m) of his money to fund a lavish lifestyle. Hawkins was convicted on 181 counts of theft from the bassist’s bank accounts over a four-year period. The judge said Hawkins’ crimes were “rooted in greed and nothing else”.