Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Orchestra Baobab

  • On Verra Ça [World Circuit, 1992] A-
  • Bamba [Sterns, 1993] A-
  • Pirates Choice [World Circuit/Nonesuch, 2001] A-
  • Specialist in All Styles [Nonesuch, 2002] A
  • Made in Dakar [Nonesuch, 2008] A
  • La Belle Époque 1971-1977 [Syllart, 2009] B+
  • La Belle Époque: Volume 2 1973-1976 [Syllart, 2012] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

On Verra Ça [World Circuit, 1992]
Rarely does Afropop's Cuban connection come out and kiss you on the cheek the way it does on "El Son de Llama," the trad. arr. charanga that sets the mood. Consciously polyglot, the band bends Mandinka and Wolof traditions toward Togo, and Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal's Cassamance as well as Cuba. But these 1978 Paris recordings are suffused with presalsa's elegant charm--the unostentatiously gorgeous arrangements make the less derivative Dakar-'82 Pirates Choice sound too off-the-cuff. Special thanks to guitarist Barthelemy Attisso for the extra melodies and saxophonist Issa Cissako for the messages from earth. A-

Bamba [Sterns, 1993]
Especially on the title song, which hails a hero of Islam, this will remind On Verra Ça fans of how luxuriously and site-specifically this band hears classic salsa. But in addition guitarist Barthélémy Attisso, the star of an all-star show, has been listening to Osibisa or maybe Santana and taking the bullshit out. Two five-cut '80-'81 LPs fit on one CD, each of which breaks up the way prime African albums usually do--three-four really good ones plus pleasant filler. A bargain. A-

Pirates Choice [World Circuit/Nonesuch, 2001]
Jazz, r&b, soul, disco, reggae--no African band has ever emulated a New World music as gracefully as this Cuban-style unit, the essence of snazz in '70s Dakar who became old hat when Youssou made his move. They've been my Afropop primer of choice in Puerto Rico for a decade, and this 1982 swan song is regarded as the best of their four estimable albums. It was never officially released here till now, and I used to find it too casual. But as the even more relaxed previously unreleased disc makes clear, getting in the mood is good for your blood supply. Baobab's taste in salsa was charanga in aura if not form, there's no Iberian schmaltz in their singers rough or smooth, and their horn section consists entirely of Issa Cissoko, a drolly doleful individualist whose tenor provided a foil for Barthelemy Attisso's bilingual guitar. A-

Specialist in All Styles [Nonesuch, 2002]
Cut 30 years after they formed and 15 yearsafter they hung up their tumba and timbales, this Nick Gold reunion party is the ideal introduction to Baobab's relaxed mastery of American instruments, Cuban rhythms, and Senegalese form-and-content. Barthelemy Attisso's guitar is surer than when he was a big bandleader, Issa Cissoko's saxophone slyer than when he was a crazy kid. The four remakes from Bamba and On Verra Ça are richer and mellower, not just as recordings, where money helped, but performances--Attisso must have missed that guitar he stashed to go off and lawyer in Togo. And when Youssou N'Dour and Ibrahim Ferrer conjoin on the same track, Afro-Cuban is made flesh and goes to heaven. A

Made in Dakar [Nonesuch, 2008]
Leading with three old songs, none in my CD collection and all newly performed, this will take awhile to sink in for anyone who's bonded with Specialist in All Styles. But it will, the five new tunes no less than the six Africa-tested classics, all redone no matter when Baobab started playing them. Much more than the Buena Vista folks, this reconstituted band is the great jewel of world music as a commercial concept. It would never have recorded its finest music if there wasn't an audience of middle-aged white liberals ready to eat it up. Barthelemy Attisso's loping guitar, Issa Cissoko's drolly soulful sax, distinctive voices old and not-so-old adding possible wisdom in four different languages over a shared wealth of Afro-Latin rhythms that include calypso, guajiro, seuraba and what is called mbalsa--all seem like the fruits of rich lives fairly lived. This is precisely the illusion the commercial concept means to propagate. Most likely it's also the truth. A

La Belle Époque 1971-1977 [Syllart, 2009]
This two-CD import has many discographical drawbacks. The adequate audio on the first disc, all or most of which was recorded live without audience in an empty club, could be more forceful and distinct. It shares the preponderance of its second disc with Nick Gold's On Verra Ça comp and a few tracks with the somewhat superior archive dig N'Wolof. Individual selections have been reinterpreted on Baobab's reunion CDs, picked up on this or that Afrocomp, and/or recycled on cheesier reissues. So as an economic matter this iteration of their early recordings, trending Latin and also often featuring Laye M'Boup--although note Rudy Gomis's star turn on the climactic "Yen Saay," which does have a studio sheen--may seem a redundant extravagance to some old fans. If so, however, I urge them to seek out not just "Yen Saay" but the gorgeous "Baobab Gouye Gui"/"Geeja Ngala Riir"/"Samaxol Fatou Diop" sequence, preceding it with "Jarraf" if they don't know N'Wolof, where it's called "Yaraf." Also, um, "Ndaga"/"El Vagabonde" up front is pretty sweet. Et cetera. B+

La Belle Époque: Volume 2 1973-1976 [Syllart, 2012]
Proud owner of their early N'Wolof, which focuses on the pioneering Wolof traditionalist Laye M'Boup, and of the late-'70s Paris sessions released decades ago as On Verra Ça, I thought I had all the early Baobab I needed and most of what there was. Now I doubt that even this follow-up to the 1971-77 first volume reviewed below gets it all. As Florent Mazzoleni's français-seulement notes make (somewhat) clear, they released many (shortish) albums back when they were the toast of the post-colonial elite at downtown Dakar's Club Baobab. Salsa was the rage of Senegal's emergent ruling class, and there was always clave near the heart of Baobab's groove. But cosmopolitanism was also on the agenda of a multitribally multilingual unit that could bring off its worldwide ambitions because its band sound was as solid and unmistakable as the Rolling Stones'. Hear them run King Curtis over Jimmy Cliff on "Issa Soul" or go all-out JB on "Kelen Kati Leen," try an uptempo blues on "Sey" or a careful bolero on "Cabral," remember their roots on "Nidiaye" or stretch out San Francisco-style on "Sibou Odia." Hear Togolese Bartelemy Attisso run the show without ever hogging the spotlight. A-