Cuban music is shot through with African rhythms brought over by slaves–and in an improbable circle of influence, Cuban sailors who took their favorite records to Africa in the 40s worked a profound change on the music there. Congolese rumba, or soukous, remains the most famous instance, but Cuban sounds also turned up in Senegal, Guinea, and Mali, where they became a strong flavor in the local music. Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab went a step further, adopting the influence almost completely undigested: formed in 1970 to entertain Dakar’s elite at the Baobab Club, the group began by playing straight-up Cuban dance pop. But soon the band catalyzed a movement to reclaim Senegalese musical traditions, in the process becoming one of the country’s most popular groups–a position it maintained for more than a decade. Its first vocalist, the charismatic Laye M’Boup, began to sing in his native Wolof in addition to Spanish and French; after he left in 1975, Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis introduced Mandinka lyrics and Muslim melodies from the country’s southern Casamance region. No matter what language it was sung in, the music was cool, hypnotic, soothing, and above all danceable. Up front were the soulful dual vocals of Sidibe and Gomis and the murmured sax lines of Issa Cissoko; underneath were lilting, circular guitar patterns woven into a bed of polyrhythmic percussion–timbales, Western trap kit, a deep conga called a tumba, maracas, hand claps, bells. The most arresting element of the band’s sound was the endlessly imaginative lead guitar work of Barthelemy Attisso; in a solo he could spin yards of subtle lyrical variations from a single tiny knot of melody while enhancing the song’s tapestry of interlocking rhythms. On some recordings he used a wah-wah pedal, injecting a surprising psychedelic element, but he was at his best with a clean, buoyant attack–the sound he uses on the recently reissued Pirates Choice (Nonesuch), a 1982 session that captures the group at its peak. Orchestra Baobab split up in 1987, a casualty of Senegalese audiences’ growing preference for mbalax, a more aggressive style pioneered by Youssou N’Dour. Ironically, N’Dour helped encourage the group to re-form last year for some live dates, and went on to coproduce its forthcoming album, Specialist in All Styles. On the new record, Attisso is as sharp as ever; with the addition of the high-pitched voice of Wolof griot Assane Mboup, the singers are even better than they were. Thirty-two years after Orchestra Baobab began playing, it finally makes its Chicago debut this week. Wednesday, July 17, 7 and 10 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mamadou Toure Behan.