Orchestra Baobab



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Orchestra Baobab was formed in Dakar in 1970 when a group of Senegalese Government ministers that included Adrien Senghor, Ousmane Diagne and Dame Drame decided to create an intimate club where they could meet with their friends.  They took over the premises in the basement of 144 Rue Jules Ferry, a stone’s throw from Independence Square and the Presidential Palace, and fashioned its walls and ceilings to resemble the ubiquitous Baobab tree, known among other things for its longevity and the shade of its branches. They called it the Baobab Club.

Baro N’Diaye (Saxophone) the first band leader and Sidathe Ly (bass guitar) chose the other founding members of Orchestra Baobab. Moussa Kane played congas and toumba, Biteye was the first drummer. Barthelemy Attisso (lead guitar) and the singers Balla Sidibe (who also played drums, guitar and congas) and Rudy Gomis were enticed away from the Star Band at Ibra Kasse’s Miami Club.  Laye M’Boup, the charismatic star of the National Troupe at the Daniel Sorano Theatre came with his stunning good looks, his local griot singing talents, perfect pitch and a vast repertoire of Wolof songs; Orchestra Baobab hit the scene. 

Latin music had been popular in Senegal since the 1940s when visiting sailors brought Cuban records through the port of Dakar.  By the late 1950s Senegal and neighbouring countries, including Guinea and Mali, were seeking independence from colonial rule and growing political links with Cuba served to reinforce the interest in Cuban music.  But it was the intriguingly cool mix of Latin pachanga, salsa, cha cha cha and African music that became the great strength of Orchestra Baobab.

Initially the group played the Baobab Club at weekends but they were soon so popular they were playing every night and the dance floor was always full.  By the mid-1970s they were being hailed as the best band in Senegal, if not in Africa, enjoying a status similar to Bembeya Jazz in Sekou Toure’s Guinea.

The founding members stayed firmly with the group but they welcomed regular guest musicians and singers. Orchestra Baobab was distinctive in that the musicians came from a wide mix of cultures, reflecting the ethnic diversity of Senegal. Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and later Charly NDiaye (bass guitar) came from the southern Senegalese province of Casamance bringing a rich repertoire of Mandinka, Mandiago and Diola folk songs. Medoune Diallo represented Toucouleur music from the north of Senegal.  Issa Cissoko (tenor saxophone) and his cousins, Mountaga Kouate (drums) and Seydou Norou “Thierno” Kouate came originally from the Malinke tribe in Mali (Their uncle had perfected his saxophone playing with Dexter Johnson). Barthelemy Attisso from Togo added touches of Congolese and other West African musical styles to his arrangements. Latfi Ben Geloun (rhythm guitar) was born in St. Louis of Moroccan parents, Peter Udo (Clarinet) was from Nigeria.  The Wolof singers Laye M’Boup and N’Diouga Dieng, from the major ethnic group in Senegal put a particularly strong Senegalese stamp on the music. 

Despite his enormous talent, Laye M’Boup was unreliable, finding it difficult to cover his commitments with both the Sorano Theatre and Orchestra Baobab, so the group looked around for a singer to stand in for him.  At his audition, the young and very talented Thione Seck sang “Demb”, a tribute to his mentor Laye M’Boup and was accepted without hesitation. His younger brother, Mapenda Seck, was also drafted in.

In 1975, the 27-year-old Laye M’Boup was killed in a car accident, although rumours concerning a jealous husband surrounded his death.

Outside the Baobab Club the group were invited to play on state occasions such as the “soiree” organised to celebrate the nomination of Abdou Diouf as Prime Minister, at glamorous army and navy dress dances and at New Year’s Eve dances in Ziguinchor, held to raise funds for municipal improvements.   In 1978 they played at the wedding reception of Pierre Cardin’s daughter in a glitteringly expensive setting near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. They also played on the Casamance Express passenger boat during its inaugural trip, travelling from Dakar to Ziguinchor and on to Conakry.

In 1979 the Baobab Club closed down and Orchestra Baobab moved to the Ngalam nightclub at Point E.  By the early 1980s, at the height of their popularity, Orchestra Baobab could command a very respectable fee of 1.800,000 Fr CFA per night (about £3,000 in today’s money). However, everything was about to change.

In 1982, the young 23-year-old Youssou N’Dour formed his first band and burst upon the scene with a new wave of popular Senegalese dance music called “mbalax”, based on the sounds of traditional sabar drums.  This was a natural rival to the more leisurely and languid dance grooves of Orchestra Baobab.

In  1985, in what proved to be a vain attempt to update their style, the group introduced sabars and the female singers, Ndeye Seck and Nattou Sarr  - but the new additions were not a success and in 1987, after a difficult tour in France, the group folded.

The recordings on Pirates Choice were made by Moussa Diallo, from Thies, in 1982 on a simple four-track machine. Diallo had made the first recording of Salif Keita and Mory Kante when they travelled to Thies on the Bamako – Dakar railway.  Laye M’Boup had already passed away but the main singers are represented, including Thione Seck’s younger brother, Mapenda Seck.  The recordings capture the spontaneity of Issa Cissoko’s whimsical tenor saxophone, the unique guitar style of Barthelemy Attisso as well as his wizardry as an arranger, and they are imbued with the energy and camaraderie of the friends who gathered nightly around the Baobab to make fabulous music.

Written by Jenny Cathcart

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Last modified: 02/23/11