From the Savanna to Havana 

The world according to Orchestra Baobab.

Let us now sing the praises of Orchestra Baobab. And why not? Everyone else has. Newsweek called the group "one of Africa's most vibrant exports." The Village Voice raved about its "relaxed mastery." And Rolling Stone bestowed four stars upon its 2002 comeback album, Specialist in All Styles. What can the Express possibly add to those accolades, except to say that these musicians are indeed illustrious avatars of global groove - besides being the best-titled worldbeat band around?

Orchestra Baobab comes from Senegal, a land where culture is etched into the terrain of the savanna and embedded in the songs of the griot, the musician-historian indigenous to West Africa. Quite appropriately, the group's history is covered with twists, turns, and character-enhancing wrinkles, just like its many-limbed, deep-rooted namesake.

Founded in 1970 as the house band for Dakar's elite Baobab nightclub, the group's original lineup included three members from noble griot families, including Wolof singer Laye Mboup. But after Mboup's tragic death in a car accident in 1974, the orchestra recruited several new members, who expanded the group's stylistic range. Vocalists Balla Semis and Rudy Gomis brought in the laid-back vibe of Senegal's Casamence region, while Medoune Diallo's fluency with Cuban son added a potent Latin dimension to the band's Afro-jazz-funk bag. Baobab became one of the most popular Senegalese groups ever, releasing more than twenty albums between 1970 and 1985, and inspiring a generation of younger musicians, most notably Youssou N'Dour. They resurfaced with 2001's reissue of Pirates' Choice, a two-CD set of material originally recorded in 1982, following that with last year's Specialist in All Styles, which N'Dour co-produced.

On the phone from Paris, rhythm guitarist Latfi Benjeloum explains that N'Dour is like a "little brother" to him. He's not trying to be arrogant; in African society, respect is always due to the elders, even from a world-famous superstar. "When you listen to Youssou N'Dour, you can find a lot of [styles] that came from Baobab," he explains. "When you listen to the young musicians in our country, we have influenced a lot of them, in the way we used to play, you understand? All those musicians have been influenced by Baobab."

When the subject of popular Senegalese MC crew Positive Black Soul's recent update of an Orchestra Baobab classic is brought up, Benjeloum casually mentions that both groups shared a bill the previous night at a music festival in France. He adds, "Both my sons do rap. They love that music." Evidently, the griot lives on - both in African hip-hop and in Orchestra Baobab's resurgence. As Benjeloum says, "it's a tradition in Senegal to sings words [about] the people, how great they are. And that's the work of the griots in our country, to say welcome to people. And we say it in our language, in Wolof."

Throughout their career, the group has extended that welcome to cross-cultural music fans, by recording Afro-Latin originals like "El Son Te Llama," and, most recently, "Hommage à Tonton Ferrer." The latter features N'Dour and Ibrahim Ferrer (of Buena Vista Social Club fame), whom Benjeloum calls "a fantastic musician." The song combines the mercurial guitars associated with highlife, mbalax, and juju, with the percussive, syncopated backbeats and impassioned lead vocals commonly found in Cuban music - bringing the savanna to Havana, as it were.

Currently in the midst of their most extensive American tour to date - which hits Yoshi's Wednesday and Thursday for four sure-to-be-legendary shows - the Baobabs are enjoying their newfound popularity immensely, Benjeloum says. "We didn't know we were so known in the United States," he jokes. He points out, though, that their music, while jazzy and relaxed, is boogie-friendly. An Orchestra Baobab show, he emphasizes, "is not just a concert for listening. It's a concert for dancing."


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