Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jun 4th 2008 9:00AM by Steve Hochman
"In the 1970s, there weren't studios," says Attisso, the band's original guitarist. "What was recorded on disc was recorded in the clubs when we played. Sometimes there were three or four dance floors operating at the same time. They'd place microphones around so they could catch the singers."
It was quite the contrast when they recorded in that song again last year for the just-released album 'Made in Dakar.' The sessions took place at a state-of-the-art studio owned by Senegalese star Youssou N'Dour (who guests on the burbling track 'Nijaay,' which can be heard below) and was overseen by producer Nick Gold, the man behind World Circuit Records and such essential global music projects as the Buena Vista Social Club releases and many Ali Farka Toure albums. The song's original singer, Laye M'Boup, was gone, having died in a 1974 auto accident.
But Attisso doesn't see much change from the old to the new. "In my opinion, it's not different," he says. "The songs are the same. We're playing the same as we did in 1970, same Orchestra, same musicians, same leader. For us all that's changed is the recording quality and the advent of new instruments. But we play the same as we did back then."
What has changed, though, is the world in which they are playing. The very fact that he's talking by cell phone from his Togo home to a reporter in Los Angeles -- via French-English translator Ellen Sowcheck in New York -- attests to that. Just a few years ago, this was inconceivable. Orchestra Baobab was key in the development of West African music, arriving at a time when the local sounds in Dakar were dominated by Cuban-rooted styles, brought to the continent by sailors frequenting the Caribbean. Baobab, along with N'Dour and his Star Band (several members of which left to join Baobab), injected African elements into the dance music, drawing on traditions of various regional cultures, Wolof and Mandinga among them. But by the mid-'80s, the group was out of fashion and its members moved on to other fronts, Attisso returning to his native Togo and to the law career that had been interrupted when he was recruited into the band while still a student.
But the legend only grew, recordings becoming cherished by collectors around the world as awareness and interest in African music intensified. In 2001, Gold reissued the early-'80s album 'Pirate's Choice' -- which served as a revelation, particularly in what was still heavy in rumba and other Cuban influences, at least to Western ears, to the point that All Music Guide lists the band under the Latin genre rather than African. Gold then persuaded the surviving members to re-form for some shows, and then new recording sessions for the 2002 album 'Specialists in All Styles' were produced by former rival N'Dour, with a full-circle guest appearance by Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista. And nearly 40 years after its founding, as it commences a North America tour that runs through early July, Orchestra Baobab holds nothing short of icon status both at home and in the rest of the world.
"We're surprised and also very lucky," Attisso says. "We had a great deal of luck coming upon a producer like Nick Gold, a true professional who only releases very good albums. He works really hard at them. And part of that is bringing in journalists and getting them to know more about us. The more he talked about us, the better known we became. Back in the 1970s we never had this opportunity to be made famous by the media the way we have now."
In Senegal, they've found, that many people have been discovering their music for the first time in recent years.
"There is a DVD of us playing in France that is shown quite often on TV in Dakar," he says. "Also we play in a club there, and we find a lot of people who came to the club were surprised; they hadn't heard this music before. Maybe a few had frequented clubs where it was played. But most were not familiar and found it was really very varied, so now the TV station gets asked quite often to show the concert. It's a revelation to a new generation, because, remember, we had 15 years of rest."
It certainly did them no harm. On the new album, the rumba lilt is as persuasive and seductive as ever, woven with the various shades of Afrobeat, and Attisso's guitar retains the distinctive fluid sting that was crucial to the old recordings. And throughout there is a sense of deep appreciation for both past and present successes and the people who have been parts of that.
"We wanted to do 'Pape Ndiaye' now since it was sung by Laye M'Boup," Attisso says. "He was a person in the griot tradition, so we really wanted to use this song, singing praise of people in life."
Okay, so if the band hasn't changed much, the audience must have. "It's very true," he says. "When we started and were playing at Club Baobab, people who came were mostly local, Senegalese. Now that we've been out on tour and actually out of Africa, it's very different. People who come are a mix from all over the world."
And yet: "In many cases the reaction of the audience is just the same -- same sense of enthusiasm, warm welcome, sense of joy."
Well, not exactly. "We were on tour in England and a lot of reviews were published in the British papers, and some said this is the best African group today," Attisso adds. "They never would have said this about us in 1970 -- because we weren't out there!"
Listen to the song!