Orchestra Baobab – Sexier than the Buena Vista Social Club

Orchestra Baobab
Sexier than the Buena Vista Social Club

By Struan Douglas

Senegal is a country of many baobab trees and an incredible music tradition. And when they merge – that is the longevity, the pride and strength of the baobab tree with the beauty and passionate groove of the music – something quite wonderful is created.

On my first evening in Dakar (the capital of Senegal) I walked to the historical and majestic Independence Square in the centre of the city. As I stood there in the repressive heat, I could hear music. Just across from the square there was this club. And inside people danced, slowly, sensuously and passionately to this glorious slow groove – creating a heavy atmosphere of attraction – about tradition, music and melody. The venue, the clothing, the people and the vibe all spoke in a wonderfully romantic tone. There was a sense of security and maturity in the music which talked of the country, of the influences and all the beauty that had been before. And you could certainly feel this.

An old bald man played the violin evocatively, whilst a younger man sang in a typically high and melodic voice, the base was slow and the percussion gentle. The band was playing Cuban music better than the Cubans. It had all the romance of the Buena Vista Social Club, all the style of Cuba, but it was entirely African and entirely expressive.

The band I was watching was not the famous band from Senegal’s 70’s – Orchestra Baobab. Orchestra Baobab had disbanded many years before, however they had left a wake of beauty behind them. And this band was one of the many in Senegal keeping that sensual tradition – where the love for the music proudly parades itself – alive.

Orchestra Baobab was formed in Dakar when a group of government ministers decided to create an intimate club where they could meet with their friends. They took over premises in a basement just off Independence Square, and fashioned its walls and ceilings to resemble the Baobab tree. They called it the ‘Baobab Club’, and decided to open it with a wonderful music event. Musicians from all about town converged and when the band was joined by singing star and griot (the West African tradition of healing through music) Laye Mboup, Orchestra Baobab was born to open this wonderful club.

They played the groove orientated Cuban inspired music of Senegal, illustrating the meeting point of all the wonderful music diversities that had touched on the port of Dakar. Latin music had been popular in Senegal since the 1940s through visiting sailors from Cuba and later during independence through political links. And as in the African manner it was reinvented with the music of the region, mixing in the West African flavour of mbalax music. The music of the West African griot. That form of music Youssou N’Dour made famous – the percussive intensity of the talking drum mixed with the soaring, preaching vocals.

And when these roots of Senegal fused with the Latin, salsa and cha cha cha an intriguingly attractive blend that somehow captured the essence of beauty was created. To be in proximity to the music, to sense the enjoyment of the musicians is an expression and style all of its own and as a result the band enjoye d a wonderful career. They played at the glittering wedding reception of Pierre Cardin’s daughter in Paris, they played on the Casamance Express passenger boat and of course at the famous Baobab club.

However unfortunately their fame could never escape the envy that follows it. Lead singer, Laye Mboup was killed in a car accident at the age of 27. Rumours concerning a jealous husband surrounded his death, however were never proved. The band continued without him and in the mid 70’s released five cassettes which like many African albums were awfully produced, poorly distributed, and pirated all through West Africa and Europe. They earned the distinction of being one of the most pirated bands.

And this together with the vibrancy, maturity and beauty of the band gave rise to the recording – not ironically called ‘Pirates Choice’, recorded in the early eighties. Even though it was the end of the bands career it does capture the ebullience for style and the social, relaxed atmosphere of everything the music is about. Africa Beats is brought to you each month courtesy of the Afri-Beat Web Site.

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