Since their 2001 comeback, veterans Orchestra Baobab have just got better and better. Katharina Lobeck Kane got them telling their story in their own words. All photos by Judith Burrows except as credited.
In the summer of 1970, just ten years after Senegal’s independence from France, Dakar was one of the most modern, cosmopolitan and proudest capital cities of West Africa. Led by poet president Léopold Sédar Senghor, the young nation sought its own path between the French culture that had taken root there and the country’s great variety of traditions that it was about to discover anew.
At the heart of this cultural transformation was the Club Baobab, founded by a couple of wealthy businessmen and an influential politician for Senegal’s rich and mighty. For some ten years, this lush inner-city nightclub was the place to be seen, a place of prestige, power and play – and source of some of the greatest musical hits of the era. The resident orchestra united a bunch of dashing and incredibly talented young men who became world famous as Orchestra Baobab.
In ‘70s Senegal, a wave of cool swept in from the United States in the form of soul, R&B and funk. Led by Orchestra Baobab, Senegal’s musicians transformed the styles of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown to suit their own local realities. But from the outset the mighty Baobab was nurtured by roots that reached out into the country’s most diverse creative soils: the rumbling Diola rhythms of the Casamance; the soaring praise songs of the Mande griots that flirted with the jazz, soul, pachanga, son and salsa returning across the Atlantic to reinspire the African music from which it came. Among the band’s members were griots turned jazz musicians and Fula aristocrats who had become salseros. Their origins were found in Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Nigeria and Morocco as well as in Senegal, and their paths converged in cosmopolitan Dakar.
Now 24 years after the band split up, and eight since their moving reunion, some of the orchestra’s most influential members share the story of the mighty Baobab, in their own words.
Barthélemy Attisso: “When I arrived in Senegal in 1968, there was only Cuban music. Back home in Togo, we were listening to Nigerian highlife and Congolese guitar music, but if you walked past a club in Dakar, you would swear there were Cubans playing inside!”
Issa Cissoko: “I was born into music. I come from a family of griots, both on my maternal and paternal side. My father was a great percussionist, and I first started out learning djembe and tama, later balafon. Then I fell in love with the guitar, so I went to the Maison Des Jeunes to take guitar lessons. I met a certain Mr Perron and told him that I had come to learn guitar. He said, ‘There is no guitar here. We only have horns.’ He said, ‘Come here and show me your hands’. So I did. He said, ‘You’ve got the hands of a sax player. Here’s the saxophone.’ He showed me how to play a scale; and told me to play. He uttered a sound of surprise. I started panicking, thinking I had spoiled the saxophone. Then he called a few other teachers and said to them that he had never seen anyone copy a scale so quickly. So they called it a gift. And that’s how I started playing the saxophone.”
Mountaga Koite: “Myself and my brother Thierno come from a family of griots, both on our father and mother’s side. We are Kouyaté, and everyone knows that the Kouyaté can’t really bypass griotism, even though our parents weren’t that keen on us becoming musicians. My father never made music, and though my mother occasionally went to sing at naming ceremonies or weddings, she didn’t do it professionally like other griots. Our father may not have wanted us to take up music, but he realised that it had already been etched into our souls.”
“We were really lucky to have our elder brother Diego Kouyaté at home. He was a great saxophonist who played with the groups Black Soul and Super Star. We soaked up jazz simply by staying at home. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane… we knew all of those artists as kids, as we listened to their music all day long, thanks to Diego.”
Thierno Koite: “Even the youngest kids in the house were able to hum along with the famous jazz themes. Diego, he really loved Gillespie and Coltrane. The first thing you’d hear everyday was Diego’s record player. Every morning as soon as you got up, while he drank his coffee, boom, it started. It was engraved into our minds from early on. I love Charlie Parker to this day.”
Mountaga Koite: “From a very young age, I started playing djembe in a ballet troupe with another elder brother, Moussa Cissokho. That was around 1968/69. In 1972, I left that group to join Ouza and the Ouzettes. In 1974, I started to play drums and congas. My brother Thierno was also a great influence. He played in an orchestra called Las Hondas De Sabada. They rehearsed in Rufisque, where we lived. I sometimes jumped on the walls to look at them and listen to them play. One day, I tried to play drums there and they said, ‘If you only learn properly you can go very far’.”
Ndiouga Dieng: “I was born in Rufisque into a family of griots. In the old days, there were no artists other than the griots. We were historians, singing was our profession. In my family, everyone sings. My mother Ngom Bambilor was one of the great stars of Senegalese music. You could often see her perform in the wrestling arenas. I lost my father at a young age and grew up with my paternal uncle, who was a great master drummer. I learnt from him. I started out playing traditional music. I sang kassak, ndawra bine [a style of Wolof drumming and singing] and other styles of traditional music.”
“But still, my family wasn’t too keen on me dabbling in music. I tried other trades. I’m an electrician by profession. I did a lot of jobs, but music was always stronger. I had my own folkloric troupe. I was a famous griot at the time, my songs were played on the radio, and I was hired for many ceremonies.”
Barthélemy Attisso: “I am from Togo, and came to Dakar to pursue my law studies. I became a musician because I had to find a job in order to pay for my studies. My teacher had always said ‘If you want to work without getting tired, pick a job that doesn’t bore you’. So I chose music. I didn’t know how to play an instrument. Paradoxically, that meant stopping my studies for a while, as I needed to practise day and night. I bought a guitar and took I Play Guitar out of the university library. I was so passionate that I didn’t do anything else. I went to the nightclubs to hear what the local bands were playing which was mainly Afro-Cuban. During the day, I listened to the radio and practised. I listened to lots of musicians, such as the great Franco. I looked at Ghana and its great highlife artists. That was refined music in which I found a lot to learn. I discovered Django Reinhardt, whose style I liked a lot, BB King, Wes Montgomery and Carlos Santana. Whenever I was drawn to someone’s style, I tried to understand how he did it.”
“After a while, I knew how to play pretty much all of the accompaniments to the local hits. The following year I found a nightclub where I could finally earn a monthly salary. I now had my ‘grant’ and could return to university to continue my real career. I had lost one and a half years, but it was worth it.”
Balla Sidibe: “I come from a military family. My grandfather was in the colonial army and my father served in the army during the First World War. Most of his brothers went into the army and so did most of mine. The military was supposed to be my destiny. I became a parachutist, but I was drawn to music. My parents didn’t agree, they considered music to be the business of griots. I caused so much trouble in the army that they had to release me. I always listened to music at the time: Aragon, Johnny Pacheco etc. The Senegalese national radio played Cuban, Congolese and Guinean music. That’s what was playing in Dakar at the time. Those styles were engraved in my head. God gave me the gift of being able to imitate anything I hear.”
“I joined UCAS Jazz from Sedhiou (Casamance, my hometown). And when the orchestra was given a set of wooden timbales I was told to play them. I wasn’t a singer then. I played timbales, composed Manding pieces to Cuban rhythms and gave them to the lead vocalist to sing. It’s only when I came to Dakar that I started singing, with an orchestra called Moulin Rouge.”
Charles Ndiaye: “I started out as a double bass player. The electric bass came much later. I taught myself by listening to records. We rehearsed, listened to discs and copied what we heard. And we mainly listened to Cuban music and soul. That’s what we grew up with. We played for the balls organised by various organisations. Concerts would last from 8pm to 6am. There were great salsa dancers there! As for my bass playing, it has remained strongly marked by my studies of the double bass, which is why my style is different. It’s more rhythmic, more poised, and heavier on the bottom strings.”
Rudy Gomis: “My roots are in the Casamance. If I didn’t have parents with roots in Guinea-Bissau, and that Guinean influence that you feel in the Casamance, I wouldn’t have developed that style. Everyone always wonders where I find those harmonies. It’s not Wolof, not Senegalese. There’s something that’s different. They see me as a Senegalese, while the scales and harmonies come from Guinea-Bissau. Really, artistically, I’m from Guinea-Bissau.”
“I sang because I liked singing, not to get paid. My parents had an association of friends and relatives who met to have fun. They would go out as a group and dance. Since my parents couldn’t leave me at home alone, they took me along. And I started helping out by putting on the records and changing the needles on the gramophone. I must have been 13 or 14 years old. I loved French and Cuban music and it was my challenge to copy the Cuban singers as closely as possible. Through imitation, I began to understand what they do to play a certain style.”
Latfi Benjeloun: “Music is in the heart of our family. If you wanted to listen to music, you either had to turn on the radio or make it yourself. Both of my parents were brilliant musicians, even though they never turned it into a profession. My mother was an amazing Arab percussionist. My father was a flautist, playing transverse flute in Oriental style and the ney. Both sang. When I was a child we often had musical gatherings at our house.”
“One of my uncles was the guitarist of Mbaye Diop’s Star Jazz in Saint-Louis. The very first time I saw a live band was at an uncle’s wedding. I must have been seven or eight years old. I spent almost the entire evening on the stairs near the orchestra, watching them play. Several years later I saw Mbaye Diop’s Star Band play, fell in love with it, and started going to their rehearsals straight after school. I’d climb onto the drum stool and play. Then I learnt the first guitar chords with several friends.”
“In Saint-Louis the most famous band at the time was the Saint-Louis Jazz. They played salsa, paso doble, waltz and tango. I joined them when I was 17. By then the band played pop music, rock ’n’ roll and blues. We tried to imitate the virtuosity of Wilson Pickett, Cream and Otis Redding. But it was hard, because the guitar strings used by our guitarists here were thick, like bicycle brake cables.”
Medoune Diallo: “It was Orchestra Aragon, really, that pushed me towards music. I loved their stuff. It entered my soul and remained there. Their music was everywhere. Then I heard someone play guitar and was so moved that I simply had to play. I did everything to find a guitar and an amplifier, and formed a group called the Royal Eagles. We played salsa. But my dear mother, may she rest in peace, broke my amplifiers and my guitar. She said, ‘You’re a noble Fula, you’re not supposed to do that’. My father died on 6 August 1963. I was very young then. Had he been alive, I would never have become a musician. I am a Kane by name, we are nobles, descendants of marabouts. Do you see this mosque? This is here thanks to my father Sadio Kane. My mother loved me a lot, and so she allowed me to pursue music. Things got better when I received my first royalties and did up the entire house.”
The paths of Baobab’s core members crossed in the nightclubs of late 1960s Dakar. A handful of large, sophisticated orchestras dominated the capital’s music scene. They were tied to particular clubs that owned the style, the ideas and all the instruments.
Mountaga Koite: “In those days, Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and Barthélemy Attisso were inseparable. You can almost say they grew up together. They were young mates who hung out together and played music at the same time.”
Balla Sidibe: “We weren’t even aware that we were preparing our musical careers. We simply played for pocket money. We weren’t married yet, had no responsibilities, we lived on butter sandwiches and café au lait we bought at the small tanganas [small, informal street cafés]. Life was beautiful. Then Rudy Gomis told me about this band called Le Standard. That was the time that Attisso arrived from Togo to study here.”
From Le Standard, Sidibe, Gomis and Attisso were called to join the famous Star Band, the resident orchestra at the legendary Club Miami. Run by Ibra Kasse with the rigour of a military operation, he inspired great innovation, experimenting with local languages, rhythms and melodies. Here Senegalese modern music broke away from the pure imitation of foreign influences and made them its own.
Issa Cissoko: “We all owe a lot to Ibra Kasse. He was the one who introduced that mixture of Senegalese folklore and Cuban music that Laye Mboup later took further with Orchestra Baobab. He was really the one who started mbalax.”
Charles Ndiaye: “Ibra Kasse was really keen on singing in national languages, and actually imposed that. He got up one day and said, Medoune, you’re a Tukulor, from now on you’ll sing in Tukulor! Balla, you’re Manding, I want you to sing in Manding. He contributed to that more than anyone else in Senegal.”
Balla Sidibe: “The Miami was like a school. Without Kasse, we could never have done it. He controlled all the sounds. If you played a wrong sound, he’d cut you off. If you sang out of tune, he’d cut the microphone. And if you said, ‘Grand Kasse, why did you do that?’ He’d say, ‘What you did was rubbish, and I can’t accept that you do that in front of the clients’.”
Five of the band’s current core members were part of Orchestra Miami in 1970 when they were contacted by saxophonist Baro Ndiaye and the bass player Sidat Ly, two brilliant musicians who’d been asked to put a band together for the new Baobab Club.
Latfi Benjeloun: “Baro Ndiaye was a guy from Podor, in the north of Senegal, and Sidat Ly a Saint-Louisian like me. They are integral to the history of Orchestra Baobab. Baro Ndiaye has passed away, and Sidat Ly left music a long time ago. Back then, they were a strong team. They poached most musicians who then formed Baobab from the Miami!”
Balla Sidibe: “I received a letter. It said there is someone who is about to form an orchestra to be resident at that club called Baobab. If you’re interested, you can come and join our rehearsal tomorrow. I went. We talked, and came to an agreement. I suggested they also take on Barthélemy Attisso. He, Rudi and I have always stayed together. We had to leave the Miami on a Thursday, as the opening of the Baobab took place on a Friday in 1970. We stayed at Baobab from then onwards.”
Barthélemy Attisso: “The Star Band at the Miami had been the greatest band in Dakar until then. We were better paid than any other musicians. But the offer we received from Baobab was far more interesting.”
Medoune Diallo: “I played at the Miami with Attisso, Balla, Rudy Gomis and the others. After they left I went to see them at Club Baobab, and Baro Ndiaye said, ‘Here’s my guy! Here’s the missing band member!’ Rudy Gomis had already left then, he only stayed with Orchestra Baobab for a couple of months (initially), and I took up his place.”
At the Baobab club, the new core group was Baro Ndiaye (band leader and sax player), Sidat Ly (bass), Biteye (drums), Moussa Kane (tumba) and Barthélemy Attisso (guitar) with Laye Mboup, Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis on vocals.
The club enjoyed dizzying success.
Balla Sidibe: “In the beginning, this was a private club for the friends of the founders. But the whole thing soon became much bigger. You know, the Senegalese love new things. If it’s new, they love to come and check out what’s going on. Eventually, we needed more musicians. Attisso brought Latfi Benjeloun (rhythm guitar) into the group in the ‘70s. The musicians put money together every week to pay him, because the directors didn’t want to take on another musician. They cared about the money, but we only cared about making good music.”
A few months later, in 1971, Medoune Diallo and Issa Cissoko, their former colleagues at the Miami, also joined Baobab. One of the best salsa singers at the time, Medoune filled the gap that Rudi Gomis’s departure had left.
When Sidat Ly gave in to the pressures of his prestigious and deeply religious family, swapping his bass guitar for a grand boubou and prayer beads, Charles Ndiaye was poached from the Miami to replace him. In the same year, master griot Ndiouga Dieng joined as a back-up to Laye Mboup. Mboup was often absent, in demand with Senegal’s acclaimed traditional ensemble, the National Theatre Sorano. But for now, the band’s winning line-up was complete. Together, they created a refined new sound inspired by all they had learnt in Kasse’s Star Band.
Rudy Gomis: “We experimented with the things we had already achieved in the Miami. We put griots in the band in order to be able to combine Senegalese and imported sounds. We found a really subtle way of taking pieces from our national folklore and arranging them without distorting them in a salsa or pachanga way.”
Balla Sidibe: “Baobab played everything. Not only salsa, rumba, paso doble, tango, reggae
– we played anything people wanted. As I had played with Attisso and Gomis before, we came to Baobab with our repertoire. I sang Mande, Cuban and Guinean songs. I usually sang in Manding. How could I sing in Spanish when I didn’t understand it? I don’t like to talk rubbish in a song. If people liked a Cuban song, I would take it up and perform it in Manding.”
Barthélemy Attisso: “The ‘70s were the era of R&B, soul, jerk, reggae, all of that. It was necessary for us to show that we were capable of staying in tune with those fashions. And the freedom we gained at the club allowed us to play all of those different styles, and to do them well. It was a challenge and a great pride for us to show that we were capable of playing anything that was in fashion internationally.”
Thierno Koite: “In those days, each orchestra had its own sound. And Orchestra Baobab was (and is) Africa International: Barthélemy from Togo with his inspiration; Balla from Casamance; we two Koite brothers with our Mande tradition; there’s Issa Cissoko; Benjeloun with his Berber roots. That’s why the style was different from any of the other groups.”
Ndiouga Dieng: “The musicians of Orchestra Baobab are real professionals. They are not only great musicians, but also great teachers. They took me in kindly. You know, there’s a difference between modern and traditional song. There’s a difference in rhythm and scale. All of that was sometimes difficult to master. But with Baobab I was able to adapt to those differences.”
“Everyone had his background, and everyone had something to learn from the other. Mande, Wolof, Pulaar – everyone was at ease with what they did. Why? Because the base of everything was Attisso, who did the arrangements.”
One of the band members that was instrumental in creating the Baobab sound of the time was Laye Mboup, an extremely gifted Wolof griot and inspired innovator. His soaring vocals became Baobab’s trademark sound of the time and his stylish looks attracted the female fans. He died in a car accident in 1975, robbing the orchestra of their most famous vocalist, and Senegal of one of its greatest personalities.
Issa Cissoko: “Laye Mboup was the best. He was and still remains the best folk singer Senegal has ever had. He was a griot, and a professional singer of international stature. He is the father of all traditional vocalists. Laye Mboup was a great kassak singer. His music was crazy!”
Barthélemy Attisso: “We had the audacity to play a music that was the same level of quality as anything that happened internationally while remaining deeply rooted in Senegalese music. That was thanks to our great singer Laye Mboup, who really knew how to create a mix of modern and traditional music.”
Laye Mboup’s visionary fusion of traditional and modern sounds helped Senegalese music along the road of ‘indigenisation’, ultimately resulting in the creation of mbalax, Senegal’s very own national style. His tone of voice and approach to melody left an indelible mark on Orchestra Baobab, and each new vocalist was chosen according to his ability to emulate Mboup’s soaring vocals. The most famous of all his successors was Thione Seck, one of the greatest stars of Senegalese music.
Baobab entertained Dakar’s glitterati at Club Baobab and beyond. By 1977, they had played four nights a week for seven years at the club. Their songs formed the soundtrack to the lives of Senegal’s youth. They had represented their country at the Week Of Senegalese Culture in Cameroon in 1971, and in Tunisia in 1972. They had been nominated best Senegalese orchestra in 1977, and produced more hits in less than a decade than other bands achieve in a lifetime. But the band needed a change. They were disappointed to see little from the income generated by their album sales, so they moved from the Baobab Club to the new venue Jandeer, where for the first time they owned their own instruments.
Mountaga Koite: “Things weren’t bad at Club Baobab, but Abdou Diaw [at the Jandeer] offered us up to four times more than the fee we had been earning. And also, things had become too predictable for us at Baobab. We didn’t really evolve. We had just recorded five albums in one go, and those five discs didn’t earn us any money at all. Five albums at once!”
Balla Sidibe: “Make no mistake, the Baobab Club was still working, but Diaw paid better. And so we left the Baobab in exactly the same way in which we had first left the Miami. He offered us more money, and we were not getting younger, so we took up the offer.”
The move led to the first great split in the band. Two of the orchestra’s lead vocalists, Ndiouga Dieng and Medoune Diallo, decided to remain at Club Baobab but it closed soon after. Over at the Jandeer, their former colleague and friend Rudy Gomis rejoined the orchestra.
Balla Sidibe: “Rudy Gomis had just got divorced, and he wanted to return to the group to forget his sorrows.”
Rudy Gomis: “Balla came to see me and said ‘As you’re divorced now, I don’t see why you shouldn’t play with us’; so I rejoined them. I wrote about my divorce in two songs, Coumba and Yenesayi.”
Shortly after their arrival at their new haunt, the band recorded two more albums: Ndéleng Ndéleng and Une Nuit Au Jandeer, which featured original versions of Cabral and Ndéleng Ndéleng. The participation of master percussionist Doudou Ndiaye Rose in the recording represented a musical evolution: although rhythm guitarist Latfi Benjeloun played sabar-inspired guitar parts, this was Orchestra Baobab’s first real attempt to integrate the Senegalese sabar drum – the instrument that later became central to the development of the mbalax sound – into their Afro-Cuban arrangements.
The Wolof sabar is the instrument that whips up a storm at adrenaline-fuelled wrestling matches, street parties, circumcision celebrations and other communal occasions. In the late ‘70s, the idea of introducing this furious street drum into the smart setting of a city nightclub was revolutionary; more radical than Orchestra Baobab were at the time. They limited their use of the drum to studio recordings, and very occasionally featured it on stage. Soon though, the young Youssou N’Dour would dare make this dramatic move and transform Senegalese music forever.
Only a few months after their arrival at the Jandeer, the orchestra lost two of its most long-standing musicians: Issa Cissoko packed his bags for the first time, as did Latfi Benjeloun. Latfi did not come back to the band until their new beginning. Issa, however, returned a few months later when the band moved from the Jandeer to Le Balafon. Medoune Diallo and Ndiouga Dieng also rejoined the band. A few nights into the Balafon season, promoters and businessmen Abou Sylla and Richard Dick, contacted the orchestra with a seductive offer of travelling to France for a tour and recording session.
Balla Sidibe: “We spent six months in Paris in 1978, but things weren’t good at all. The two promoters who had invited us didn’t get along, so we toured and played wherever we found a Senegalese audience. One day, Abou Sylla came back to us and we recorded the two albums Baobab In Paris. But there were lots of problems so we returned to Senegal.”
Medoune Diallo: “When we returned to Senegal, there were big rifts between us. Paris had caused too many tensions. As soon as we touched Senegalese soil I left.”
What the band had hoped would be their ultimate leap to fame nearly broke them apart. But in early 1979, shortly after the orchestra’s return, promoter Amadou Zeing Niang offered the group a residency at his chic restaurant Ngalam.
Charles Ndiaye: “When we arrived there, it was only a restaurant, but we attracted such audiences that they made it bigger and turned it into a live club. But all those clubs work for a while really well, and suddenly things start going wrong.”
Balla Sidibe: “The first years at the Ngalam were fantastic. That was one of my favourite periods with Orchestra Baobab.”
Their 1981 album Mohammadou Bamba features brilliant vocal performances from Thione Seck on the title track and Ndiouga Dieng on Bulmamin. Baobab’s 1982 album Ken Dou Werente included many of their most famous songs, Coumba, Ledi Njemme Mbodj and Utru Horas – Rudy Gomis’s magnificent, slow-burning lament that predicted the civil war in his native Casamance. The album should have been their defining masterpiece, but was largely ignored.
The Senegalese public had fallen in love with the mbalax. Youssou N’Dour and the Etoile De Dakar brewed this new, sexy, and deeply Senegalese rhythm that spread across the country like a rampant fever, taking Baobab’s gentle move towards musical Africanisation to its logical conclusion. Youssou N’Dour added the thundering sabar drums and the teasing rumble of the tiny tension drum, the tama, to his line-up, submerging the last hints of Cuban music under the roaring Wolof sounds. Drowned out by the movement they had once helped launch, Orchestra Baobab knew that they had witnessed the end of an era.
Thierno Koite: “When mbalax arrived, I was with it, playing with Youssou N’Dour from 1985! Mbalax was a music that had just been born. It was the hottest thing around. People said: ‘It’s time to do what is truly ours!’ And it took off.”
Barthélemy Attisso: “Once we had reached the point of our greatest popularity, a new wave of music, a new fashion, a new rhythm had appeared. A rhythm that we also played, but more toned-down – the mbalax. And people ran towards that form of music, whose pioneer was and still remains Youssou N’Dour. We started losing our audiences.”
Charles Ndiaye: “Sometimes I think that the success of the mbalax was perhaps linked to the phenomenon of urbanisation. People left their villages and came to the capital. And those people didn’t know how to dance salsa properly, not even R&B, but for them the sabar was easy to dance; and it was a women’s thing. They loved it, and with that, things were decided. Where women go, men will go too, especially in matters of dancing. Women went to dance the sabar at Youssou’s club, and the men followed them.”
Balla Sidibe: “The Senegalese loved the new way in which the women danced… When I first saw women dance mbalax in the clubs like that I was shocked! But the men obviously enjoyed going and seeing that.”
Barthélemy Attisso: “We were wondering what to do? Should we also take up mbalax and give up our own style? In the end we decided against following fashion. That meant our gradual decline.”
Mountaga Koite: “When I left in ‘85, people no longer came; Attisso and Issa had left. It was as though people were tired of it all. I remember one day where only Charly and I came to work. We looked at one another, shrugged our shoulders and returned home. I joined Thione Seck.”
Barthélemy Attisso: “When the orchestra disbanded we all went our own ways. Later I returned to Togo and returned to the bar to become a lawyer.”
Rudy Gomis: “I took up teaching again, my first profession and one I had never completely left, in case the music thing didn’t work out.”
Charles Ndiaye: “I first played in other clubs for a short while then stopped music completely. I was fed up with it all and stayed for a whole year without playing.”
Ndiouga Dieng: ”I carried on playing music to a certain extent. I was one of the founder members of the National Orchestra of Senegal, which was created in 1985. I’ve still got responsibilities there to this day. I’m a griot. I was well known in the political world and was the first cultural animator of the socialist party.”
But while they were struggling at home, their songs caught the ears of European audiences via the album Pirate’s Choice – a re-release of their classic 1982 sessions by World Circuit. Old-fashioned in Senegal, their sound was a discovery of something new and unknown to western audiences. Unbeknown to the Baobab musicians, the band achieved cult status among lovers of African music around the world.
At World Circuit, the ambitious idea to bring the band back together was eventually born. It was mentioned to Youssou N’Dour, who encouraged the venture having grown up with their music himself.
Youssou N’Dour: “When I started out in my career and the press started talking about me, an article appeared in a British newspaper that claimed I chased Orchestra Baobab from the scene. That hurt me a lot. It’s true that my music arrived at the time of the decline and disbanding of Orchestra Baobab, but I have always loved that group. So when Nick Gold came to me and told me about his idea of re-forming the orchestra, I was thrilled that I should be able to help bring them back together. We managed to convince them to reunite and record another album, which I co-produced. Orchestra Baobab have an extraordinary talent. Their music represents Africa, not only Senegal. They’re one of the most original and outstanding bands I’ve ever heard.”
Rudy Gomis: “God has good ways of working. It was the king of mbalax who created the tsunami that the mbalax became, and later it was the same kid who contributed to our reunion.”
Balla Sidibe: “Around 1997, Nick Gold, Jenny Cathcart, Youssou N’Dour and I started planning the return of Orchestra Baobab. One day Youssou N’Dour sent his driver over to my house. My wife told me that Youssou had sent his younger brother to look for me. I went to meet him. He said, ‘There’s someone called Nick Gold in London, who needs the orchestra’. I discussed this with Nick for two whole years. Nick said, if we can get hold of Attisso, he’d be happy to produce the orchestra. I found Attisso’s number and called him in Togo.”
Barthélemy Attisso: “I was in my lawyer’s office in Lomé when I received a call from Balla Sidibe. ‘Attisso, how are you?’ he asked. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘We need you,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘We are supposed to record an album with a producer in London, he needs the whole orchestra. Are you available?’ Without even thinking I said, ‘But of course! That’s extraordinary, it’s fantastic. I’ll come!’”
Thierno Koite: “I was managing Youssou N’Dour’s studio at the time when Issa Cissoko and my brother Mountaga said, ‘Leave what you’re doing and come’. I didn’t hesitate.”
Rudy Gomis: “Balla Sidibe contacted me here at the teaching centre and talked to me about reuniting Orchestra Baobab. I was almost certain that I wanted to do it. And I didn’t regret it. We’d all have died poor otherwise. Now we’ve been able to purchase houses, cars and have a better social standing. You can’t really ask for more than that. So I often thank Youssou N’Dour, who has played a key role, and God, for having looked out for us so far. We are not young.”
Charles Ndiaye: “I was overjoyed when the band got back together.”
Latfi Benjeloun: “I wasn’t convinced at first. I discussed it with Charles. I said, ‘Why should we do that? We will find ourselves in the same mess!’ He didn’t think so. Balla arranged a meeting with me and Jenny Cathcart, and I discovered this short lady, very intelligent, to the point, who didn’t have the answers to everything. I liked that. It was an adventure. A beautiful project.”
Issa Cissoko: “I didn’t want to come at first. Nick Gold came to look for me. It’s thanks to him that I play with Baobab. He’s crazy. I didn’t want to do it, things had happened between us, and I thought I really don’t need to go there again. Nick returned to London and called me at home. He spoke to my wife. He sent someone to talk to me. And you know, he persuaded me.”
Two of the orchestra’s previous lead singers however were not able to join the band again: Medoune Diallo was now a vocalist in Africando; Thione Seck had become one of Senegal’s greatest stars and couldn’t give up his flourishing solo career. In order to perform the classic songs by Laye Mboup or Thione Seck, however, the band needed a singer that was gifted with an equally enchanting voice. Enter the young Assane Mboup: an mbalax star in Senegal and hugely popular with the young who, through him, discovered the music of their parents.
Assane Mboup: “Youssou N’Dour called me one evening to talk about some other business, and then told me about the reunification of Orchestra Baobab. I was happy about that, and thought immediately that it would be a good thing to work with them. At their age, they are much more experienced than me in music, in many things. I’ve been a member of the group since 2000, the youngest member. I think Youssou N’Dour suggested my name as I was known to sing like Laye Mboup. They contacted me to sing his songs and I was honoured to accept. His songs have always been a great source of inspiration for me. I knew all of them long before joining the band. He’s really influenced my way of singing.”
The band’s ultimate test came in 2001, in the form of a now legendary concert at London’s Barbican Centre.
Barthélemy Attisso: “We were invited to London to play a concert. Imagine the stress! We were in our dressing rooms, and told ‘30 minutes until the show’. Sweat ran down our backs. We should have played a few small concerts here in Dakar to practise, but we didn’t! And the Barbican Centre, that’s a big stage! 15 minutes to starting. We started to breathe faster. Would we really be able to pull that concert off? 5 minutes! We looked at each other, and suddenly our energy returned. We got up, went towards the corridor, onto the stage, heard the announcement, and the audience started clapping. That gave us an amazing boost. We attacked the first piece with a lot of energy, vigour and assurance. When we stopped, people started clapping like crazy! The applause was so strong that we all heaved a sigh of relief! And that’s how the adventure started once again.”
Balla Sidibe: “That London gig was our first time of playing together in 15 years. And what was strange, the public got off their seats after the concert and clapped for 15 or 20 minutes. And I said to myself, people know music in Europe, so if they get up for 20 minutes, there’s hope.”
Hope materialised in three new releases: a remastered 2-CD edition of Pirate’s Choice in 2001, the Grammy nominated album of new recordings Specialists In All Styles and most recently Made In Dakar. Baobab embarked on a period of successful international touring. Back in Dakar, the orchestra wowed new audiences. They now fill the capital’s most glamorous venues, suddenly granted a second career, a better lifestyle and worldwide fame.
Thanks to Elizabeth Kinder for editing.
For more on Baobab, see Lucy Duran’s feature in fR221, November 2001. www.worldcircuit.co.uk
First published in fRoots 313, July 2009. Header image by Youri Lenquette.