Orchestra Baobab with Son Ache at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queen's Quay West), tonight (Thursday, July 10), 8 pm. $15. 416-973-4000.
Ann Arbor, Michigan – the resurrection of Senegal's incredible Orchestra Baobab is shocking enough. But the fact that Baobab's Buena Vista-style reunion – after 15 years of inactivity – finds the majestic Afro-Latin swingers sounding better than ever on their awe.some Specialist In All Styles (World Circuit/Nonesuch) disc is nothing short of a miracle.
"In Dakar," smiles guitarist Latfi Ben Geloune, "people are saying the dream team is back. And really, to be playing again with Baobab is like living in a dream."
Watching Ben Geloune casually kidding around with his 50-something friends during the afternoon rehearsal before their University of Michigan performance, then suddenly locking into a deeply soulful groove when signalled for a sound check, it's easy to see why these master musicians of Orchestra Baobab are considered among the greatest West Africa has ever produced.
Even when no one else is around, every slinky, sexy sound that comes out of Baobab flows effortlessly into place, without a single note held too long or dropped out of place. They're beyond tight; we're talking telepathy here, particularly when it comes to the beautifully complementary way found.ing guitarist Barthelemy Attisso coils his snaky leads around the tree-solid rhythms of Ben Geloune.
"When we're performing it may seem like we are playing spontaneously, but actually, all the parts have been worked out. We do our improvising only during practices. People would call me a perfectionist, but I've never worked with any musician who is more of a perfectionist than Barthelemy.
"He's fantastic at coming up with mel.odies, and my strength is in the har.monies, so we work very well together."
The line-checking process, usually a tedious task, provides more intriguing insights. When Attisso is asked for a level, he rips through the lick from the Ventures' Walk Don't Run, whereas Ben Geloune busts out Day Tripper – not the Beatles version, but the Jimi Hendrix take.
These choices may appear inconsequential but they actually reveal a lot about the influence of American rock 'n' roll and the generation gap between the older Attisso and Ben Geloune that shaped the Baobab sound.
When three Senegalese government ministers opened their new Baobab Club in 1970, they naturally wanted the best entertainment in the country, so they went over to the popular Miami Club and swiped Star Band singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe along with hotshot Togolese guitarist Attisso – who was supposed to be in Dakar studying for a law degree – to form their own house band, Orchestra Baobab.
"Of course," explains the regal Attisso in refined French, reluctantly allowing his words to be translated by his guitarist counterpart Ben Geloune, "I've been inspired by Django Reinhardt, B.B. King, Wes Montgomery and many others. But when I came to Dakar, all the nightclubs featured Cuban music. If you wanted to work as a musician you had to know a lot of Cuban music and play it very well.
"I developed a style of my own by listening to what the pianists and the flautists were doing on the Cuban recordings and trying to play those lines on guitar."
By the time Ben Geloune joined the group in 72, Baobab were already the top Cuban-style dance band on the Dakar scene, but their slow-rolling rumba and pachanga grooves weren't clicking with the younger crowd, who weren't feeling the colonial beats. Ben Geloune, who'd been digging Hendrix, Santana and Otis Redding, brought a funkier free-form aesthetic, and Baobab found their groove.
"Before Attisso invited me to join Bao.bab," Ben Geloune confesses, "I never listened to Cuban music at all. It was something that belonged more to musicians of his generation, not mine. We were listening to Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones, so we found this old Cuban music very, um... not cool.
"But it was all of us coming together with our own ideas and feelings that created what became known as the Bao.bab sound."
Throughout the 70s the Baobab sound was virtually unstoppable, until the Star Band came back with a vengeance, boasting a sensational new mbalax sound and a captivating vocalist with a searing falsetto, Youssou N'Dour. When the charismatic N'Dour formed his own group, Super Étoile de Dakar, in 82, it was all over for Baobab.
Yet before Attisso put down his guitar to practise law in Togo, he called Moussa Diallo, who had a portable two-track recorder. Together with pals Sidibe and Gomis, Attisso put everything he had left into one all-night session, knowing that those songs could be their last.
The results were released on cassettes and subsequently pirated, which provided the name for Baobab's all-time classic Pirates Choice (World Circuit/Nonesuch) collection. In 2001, Pirates Choice was NOW Magazine's consensus selection for the top recording of the previous 20 years.
"When I left the group to become a lawyer," recalls Attisso solemnly, "I gave my guitar to the younger members of the band, thinking I would never come back to music again. Over the years I had many regrets about what I'd given up by leaving Baobab. I still had many musical ideas, yet I knew I would never play in any band but Baobab.
"I could no longer hear our music be.ing played on the radio. For me, it was finished. Baobab was forgotten."
Not quite. When the Pirates Choice reissue started selling far better than anticipated, World Circuit's Nick Gold – the brains behind the Buena Vista Social Club concept – thought it might be worthwhile to try re-forming Orchestra Baobab for a few gigs.
Similarly, Gold got much more than he bargained for. Attisso and company didn't want to be a reasonable Baobab facsimile; they were determined to be better than before. They wouldn't settle for their Specialist In All Styles reunion album to be anything less than spectacular.
And with the production assistance of their old nemesis Youssou N'Dour – nice touch – they've managed to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in music history.
"When we got back together to play," says Attisso, "I think we all found it easy to be Baobab again. The sound and the feeling of Baobab were still inside us. We never lost it."
While Attisso and Ben Geloune insist that they always knew the Baobab sound could catch on outside of West Africa with the proper exposure, the effusive critical acclaim and adulation they're getting everywhere they appear has been a stunning surprise.
"We were very well received at our first show in Mexico City. Afterwards, our hosts treated us to a wonderful meal, and when we finished eating, a mariachi band appeared to perform for us. But it wasn't their own songs... they were playing the music of Baobab!
"I could not imagine a more beautiful gift."
Harbourfront Orchestra Baobab's new Specialist In All Styles shows the group at their very best, yet, sadly, many of their most-loved 70s recordings remain out of print or scattered haphazardly on hard-to-find discs with little information about the sources. Here's a survey of what's currently available of Orchestra Baobab's finest accomplishments.
2002 Specialist In All Styles (World Circuit/Nonesuch) After a 15-year hiatus, Orchestra Baobab magically appear from out of nowhere sounding better than ever. Astonishingly great!
2001 Pirates Choice (World Circuit/Nonesuch) A remastered double-disc reissue of Baobab's classic Pirates Choice LP, compiled from 82's Senegambie and Ngalam cassettes, with bonus tracks. The combination of rolling grooves and interweaving guitar and saxophone lines is transfixing.
1999 Roots And Fruit: African Dancefloor Classics (PAM) An odd sampling of cool mid-period Baobab. Far from dance-floor fodder, it's still a good way to hear stuff from the rare LPs Aduna Jarul Naawoo, '75 and Une Nuit Au Jandeer.
1998 N'Wolof (Dakar Sound) Some of the earliest Baobab recordings (70-71), previously issued on 75's Visage Du Sénégal LP along with a few previously unknown artifacts. The origins of the swinging Baobab sound.
1994 Bamba (Stern's Africa) Late-period Baobab material taken from 1980's Mohamadou Bamba and 81's Sibou Odia LPs. Interesting but not essential.
1992 On Verra Ça: The 1978 Paris Sessions (World Circuit) The two volumes of 78's Baobab A Paris LPs on one disc including the fan fave Tante Marie. Orche stra Baobab