“World music,” a term for music made by everybody who doesn’t happen to look or sound like us, is a convenient but patronizing expression that comes in for a fair amount of high-minded abuse. But the release this month of a superb new album, Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit/Nonesuch) by the Senegalese group Orchestra Baobab, may rehabilitate the usage. If you add up the Orchestra Baobab’s ingredients-an expert feel for Cuban rhythm, an interpolation of indigenous Senegalese musical traditions, a dash of French colonial chic-you’ve got a pretty decent one-
album approximation of the world. “Specialist in All Styles,” indeed.
The laboratory for this honest-to-God one-world music was not, happily, Peter Gabriel’s garden studio or Paul Simon’s travel diary, but rather Senegal’s port city of Dakar in the 1970′s. Beginning in the 40′s, Cuban music had made the reverse migration back to West Africa, whence had come the slaves and rhythmic sensibility that had helped give rise to the son and the rumba in the first place. The Africans not only “got” the Cuban style, they recognized it as kin. Owing to the vicissitudes of European imperialism, the Senegalese spoke French; Spanish was just a bunch of syllables to be sung phonetically, but that proved no great obstacle.
Soon enough, Senegal boasted its own roster of crackerjack Cuban-style combos, with the Orchestra Baobab-an all-star group that came together at Dakar’s Baobab Club in 1970-first among them. In a postcolonial Africa increasingly in love with the ideals of African-ness and Negritude, the Orchestra Baobab were able to modify the Cuban template, adding percussion elements from the Casamance region in the south and “praise songs” from the Wolof country in the north. These tribal tales of moral advice and uplift were voiced in eerie, impassioned timbres that had never graced Cuba’s Orquesta Aragon or the Beny Moré band.
By the mid-80′s, it was over: The Orchestra Baobab was “old school,” replaced by a new generation of Afro-Pop superstars like Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal playing a jumpy six-beat Wolof-rock hybrid called mbalax . Though as heavily indebted to Western pop and rock as Baobab was to
Cuba, Messrs. N’Dour and Maal nevertheless captured the imagination of Senegal, as well as a large and emerging Western world-music audience. They were, and are, revered as latter-day griots -traditional storytellers-in a way that was beyond the Baobab group in their chinos and sport shirts.
In this story, musical evolution never proceeds in a straight line; everything bends back to the starting point. Nick Gold, the World Circuit records chief who did his part to usher in the 80′s craze for West African world music, fell in love with traditional Cuban music through some old recordings of the Orchestra Baobab.
Suitably inspired, he rounded up a bunch of overlooked, long-in-the-tooth Cuban musicians, came up with a fictional pedigree (in some parallel universe, they might have played together in a real but long-defunct Havana nightclub), and launched what became the Buena Vista Social Club juggernaut, ushering in a second, Cuba-centric world-music wave.
The Orchestra Baobab made for an ideal follow-up. Its members, after all, had actually lived the Buena Vista story line-i.e., the brilliant, discarded band whose fortunes rose and fell with a legendary nightclub that gave them their name. Last year’s reissue of some choice ’82 tracks, the double-CD Pirates Choice (World Circuit/Nonesuch), found an audience, paving the way for Specialist in All Styles , a full-dress rehabilitation and reintroduction of the band which, after having fallen apart completely in 1987, is now up and running as a touring unit-a shockingly good one, based on the evidence of this record. Key members of the original band are back, among them Wolof praise singer Ndiouga Dieng and two other vocalists, Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis, who bring a harmonic sensibility peculiar to their Casamance region.
Or so the ethno-musicologists tell me. But even the innocent Western ear will pick out Issa Cissoko, a saxophonist from the James Brown school of muscular funk, and the revelatory electric guitarist Barthelemy Attisso, who emerged from a 15-year musical retirement to offer up immaculate single-note solo runs that, depending on the tune, can recall Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian or the Ventures.
And just in case you missed the Buena Vista connection, World Circuit saw fit to drop B.V. crooner Ibrahim Ferrer into one improvised tune, dubbed “Hommage à Tonton Ferrer.” Such is the relaxed, men-of-a-certain-age swagger of the Orchestra Baobab that he sounds right at home.
With all its tony production values, Specialist in All Styles , like the Buena Vista Social Club album, sounds almost too good-closer to a memory or a dream than a slice of musical history. I’m not complaining. A similar artful perfectionism runs through Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du Réér) (Nonesuch), the new album by Youssou N’Dour-who served as a co-producer on the Orchestra Baobab album, just in case any dots remain unconnected. If Specialist in All Styles is a testament to the pleasures of a resourceful collective, Nothing’s in Vain speaks to the ravishing power of the solo virtuoso. He sings in three languages-Wolof, French and English-and he seems to contain within him at least that many voices, from the suave baritone heard on the French love meditations to the pinched, slightly hysterical tenor he uses to exhort his people to better themselves. Here, Mr. N’Dour has toned down the pop elements from his earlier work, the synth lines and sax solos, in favor of a highly produced, self-consciously folkloric sound.
It suits him. Mr. N’Dour has been a savvy world traveler for some time now, and unlike the Orchestra Baobab, he didn’t have to wait 15 years to be reinvented by a Western record label. He built a studio in Dakar and did it himself.