(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 5, 2002)
The members of Senegal's Orchestra Baobab are total and complete masters of their trade as purveyors of music of the most artful and intense kind. Music expertly tailored by artisans who know exactly what they are doing, music closely stitched together with a sharp cut to allow it to hang beautifully.
What is even more amazing is that as a group they have only just recently resumed playing together again after 15 years. I reported on their first concert together again in London in May 2001, a successful European tour followed and the ball was set rolling for one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of West African music.
After Baobab's final disintegration in 1987 leader and guitarist Barthelemy Attisso returned to his first choice of profession, practicing law in his native country of Togo. He put his guitar away and did not play again for 15 years. When the reunion tour was imminent he had to practice virtually 24 hours a day to get back into it again. But those 15 years away from playing a guitar have not dulled his incredible technique, far from it, he seems to have matured and his playing has got even sharper. Those chords and solo runs up and down the fretboard are even better than before. It is also a testament to the all-round genius of this band that even after such a long layoff it sounds like they have been playing together forever.
Their first proper new album in 15 years, Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit) is a magnificent release. This piece of finely honed art features the classic old faves from the Baobab canon of work, redone by this reformed, re-energized, revitalized Baobab. Co-produced by World Circuit's Nick Gold and Youssou N'Dour, Specialist in All Styles is an astounding album that was the result of a personal ambition by Gold to get them to reform and record again. He had to track down the musicians who had split up all over the place and get them all together again.
Specialist in All Styles was recorded over 10 days in London. It has a wonderful very live feel to it - you can hear the musicians laughing in places. The space between the instruments is wide open but it is also so tight and close. Throughout this cd there is a remarkable quality of playing, like Issa Cissokho's tenor and Cherno Koite's soprano, alto and tenor sax and Charlie N'Diaye's bass. Sometimes Charlie plays it like a percussion instrument, just like one of those great big hollowed-out tree-trunk bass drums that are popular in the Casamance area of southern Senegal.
I am very fond of the Casamance; way back in 1992 I talked about the life in Casamance in this column. The people who live in this fairly lush area are a bit different from the inhabitants of the Islamic north. Cut off from the north by the Gambia, Casamance is predominately Christian and animist and they see themselves as belonging to and having more connection with West Central Africa than with the northern Senegalese people.
That view, alongside what was an actual domination by and neglect of the south from Dakar, was the basis of the civil war that raged for a period in the late '80s as the Casamance fought for independence from Dakar. Some of the members of Baobab are from the Casa-mance, vocalists Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and bassist Charlie N'Diaye, and tracks like "On Verra Ca" and "El Son te Llama" were huge hits there. Musically, Casa-mance's music differs from music generally found in the north: Casamance music is more tropical.
There was local band around where I was in Casamance called Orchestra Kasumai. Their guitar player sounded like he had been influenced by Baobab, he had certainly studied at the same philosophical guitar school as Barthelemy. He also was one of those guitarists who could turn their eclectic fingers to any style, moving between the sound of Sñr Santana, through Jimi, B.B., Bo D, Duane E. and George B. But Barthelemy is the master craftman, the originator; he also includes late '50s-early '60s English twanger Hank Marvin and Mr. Rumble himself - Link Wray - in his absolutely brilliant ability with the electric guitar.
Nine tracks swoop out of Specialist in All Styles, eight classic tracks from their body of work that have been reinvented, given new lives and told to go out and earn a living, and there is also one new track, which sounds exactly like all the others, fresh and in your face like a cool breeze, the beauty and simplicity of the recording means the percussion surrounds you, the sax, and the guitar are next to you, and the vocals stand in front of you. It was only after playing this cd a while that I realized that something was missing: There was no piano or keyboards, which I suppose is a pretty radical step, but quite a welcome one.
First track up is the great "Bul Ma Min" which has vocalist Ndiouga Dieng riding the memorable melody line, and a guitar that stabs, sparks and grumbles while the saxes punctuate and wail over the very jumpy rhythm. Following it, "Sutukun" is one of those quintessential Casamance tunes; with its mid-paced groove it could be a calypso, or possibly highlife. The guitar squirts out with a creamy smoothness while Balla Sidibe's vocals drip lusciousness all over it.
"Dee Moo Woor," previously known as "Aduna Jarul Naawo," is a real slow smoker with heavenly wah-wah and chopping Bingy Bunny rhythm guitar riffs. Ndiouga pours out the soul on the vocals and the percussion steals up on you and blasts in your ears. "Jiin Ma Jiin Ma" has Rudy Gomis vocalizing this classic guajira, Barthelemy chimes away, then runs the riffs which float in the air like the nighttime tropical perfume from Datura plants.
Up strolls the new song here, "Ndongoy Darra," a composition by vocalist Assane Mboup - well, it claims to be a new tune but it sounds like something else to me. But I'm not complaining: It allows Assane to give out some great soulful vocals and Barthelemy as always whips up some superb guitar. One of Baobab's best-known tunes, "On Verra Ca," charges out at you with an attitude, sharp sparkling guitar, punchy horns and fantastic vocals. "On Verra Ca" is one of the great songs and can stand any number of new versions, and this version is very good.
"Hommage à Tonton Ferrer" is a spine-chilling new version of one of Baobab's greatest tunes, "Otras Horas," a slow guajira which allows guests Ibrahim Ferrer and Youssou N'Dour to bounce vocals with Rudy, Assane and Balla. The tenor sax punches out while the guitar swirls and swoops. When Ibrahim and Youssou step forward to the microphone stand it pushes this track it into another dimension, the sixth dimension of pure orgasmic pleasure. A major cut that mixes the new and old worlds with a passion.
The classic Cuban son of "El Son te Llama" gets a swinging rendition, the percussion slaps away, the guitar chimes and Medoune Diallo does the honors on the vocals. "Gnawoe" tops off this album: The guitar runs with the unusual melody line and takes it past the finish line with a flamboyant flourish.
What is quite amazing is that Baobab has actually improved on some of the songs, the originals are still there cast in stone forever, existing within the context they were created in. But I think Baobab are perfectly free and entitled to and are absolutely able to reinvent the songs. And the fact that they are totally enjoying the experience comes through strongly with the the great musicianship, fun and good vibes that come out of this release.
It really does verge on some kind of a miracle that a band such as Baobab, can emerge in the early '70s, gain vast popularity, make some incredible music, fall apart in the '80s, then reform 15 years later and come back stronger than ever. How many wannabe has-beens would happily sell not only their, but their their ancestors' souls to Mr. Beelzebub to get a sixteenth of a smidgen of Baobab's talent and creativity? In most parts of the world they would be considered gods. Well, here in London they are certainly way up there with some of the most important deities. You just cannot get much better than this.
Pape Fall has been a stalwart of the Senegalese salsa scene for the last 15 years, bridging the gap between the old wave as represented by Baobab and the new wave of bands like Super Cayor. His latest release is out now: Artisanat (Stern's), a very nice and quite sparse production which suits me just fine. I'm not impressed with a lot of over-produced music these days, especially in the salsa world. Lavish arrangements and multitudes of instruments can be a curse, frequently hiding a lack of ideas and soul.
You might recognize riffs and melodies here from other Senegalese salsa songs that have appeared over the years from the Star Band, Etoile de Dakar through to Orchestra Baobab and even Pape Fall's own work. But as I have said before that does not matter in the slightest bit. Especially as with Senegalese salsa there is a fairly limited template of the oeuvre to copy. Even in the original world of salsa great songs are happily and endlessly recycled - it's all down to exactly how you do it. This release features some really groovy trombone from Wilfred Zinzou and ringing guitar from Pape Thione especially on a new version of "African Salsa." The tama cracks away and the piano does move around filling the spaces. The lyrics to the songs are interesting and very poetic, all round this is a interesting cd from Pape Fall. I can predict that a few tunes from this release will surface on volume two of Earthwork's Africa Salsa series.
From Recife in Northeast Brazil comes Contraditorio? (Stern's), an off-the-wall cd from DJ Dolores and his Orchestra Santa Massa. Radical, experimental and funky are just some of the words you can throw at this very unusual effort. DJ Dolores (real name Maciel Sallu AKA MC Salu) is said to be on the cutting edge of Brazilian electronica. Normally I would wince at terms like electronica, and make a face like I've eaten something bitter. But this cd is not a load of twaddle, I can listen to the bleeps, twiddles and diddles quite happily, as he creatively brings in interesting sounds and riddims to the sampled breakbeat mix. Like on "Samba De Dez Linhas" where a ferocious nosebleed techno drum pattern drifts in and out and allows an ethereal vocal, wild violin and trombone to interact together.
I will certainly cross the calle for any Wayne Gorbea music anywhere, anytime. The eight releases that he has made over the years have always found a prominent place in my dj box, and his latest cd Fiesta en el Bronx...Con Mucho Sabor (Shanachie) is no exception. Wayne and the boys' hard-driving Bronx salsa dura is really firing on all cylinders on this newie.
The rhythms are deep and very pure, the playing and arrangements are so sharp they just cut it like so. The famous Gorbea "live in the studio sound" means that you get the full live band experience in your ears either at home or on the dance floor. Wayne Gorbea and Salsa Picante should be considered a benchmark, an industry standard, a legal listening requirement for any aspiring salsa musician, just to show how to play music that is ram-packed full of all kinds of nutritional musical goodness and natural rhythmical fiber.
The opening track "Sube Esa Cuesta" has Wayne's jazzy piano leading the charge of the percussion brigade attacking from the high ground. By the time the call-and-response vocals and the superfine three-trombone horn section have made flanking movements, the timbales break through the lines for total victory. With "Clavo Y Martillo" you find another percussive tour-de-force with a memorable melody interwoven in a sort of pan-Caribbean rhythm mix-up. There is no confusion about "No Hay Confusion." It showcases Rick Davis' fantastic trombone playing as he prowls around the rhythm, and the melody again hangs around in your head; in fact, this sticky melodic tendency is evident in many of the tracks. "On Sabor Sabor" there is even an English lyric which fits in perfectly well.
On the title track "Fiesta en el Bronx," at the point where the intro finishes and the rhythm starts there is a drop of spine-cracking intensity, which propels the groove forward with great power. The party starts here as the song goes on about salsa music in the Bronx and once again a great melody line rings out- in fact, all through out this very powerful release the strength of the tunes is quite outstanding. This cd certainly is one of Wayne's best releases, It is very difficult to improve on the quality of the last two albums, Cogele el Gusto and Saboreando, but Fiesta en el Bronx certainly exceeds them.
Across the river in Manhattan the Spanish Harlem Orchestra has set up shop with Un Gran Dia en el Barrio (Ropeadope). This is a 12-piece all-star aggregation featuring a whole load of NY musicians from the top of the heap. Led by Oscar Hernandez, they rip through a shed load of classico tunes. First up is the old Tito Rodriquez warhorse "Mama Guela" which features Jimmy Sabater on vocals. It mambos along at the original fair pace and Jimmy shows what a great vocalist he still is. Other members of the NY salsa musical artistocracy who add their own distinctive touches are vocalist Frankie Vasquez and bassist Ruben Rodriguez and believe me, they all play their hearts out. Like on the second track, "Obsession," which starts off as a bolero slow groove, then builds and builds and when the horn section kicks in and - bang - you see stars as a Willie Colon-style trombone rips you to shreds.
Talking of Willie Colon, his "Llego La Banda" gets a airing here, as does Ruben Blades' Latin national anthem "Pueblo Latino." There is really some hardcore stuff here from the golden age(s) of Salsa and Latin music. Fantastic songs, played by top musicians, I can see that 'Un Gran Dia En EL Barrio' is going to hang around on the corner causing trouble for quite a time.
20 De Julio (Codiscos) is real fine cracker of a new release from what is probably the best band in Colombia these days - Grupo Gale. Percussionist Diego Gale leads a tight swinging big band family, with a horn section that comprises of a four piece trombone set up, three trumpets, flugel horn and Tenor sax/flute. It is jam packed with solid tunes and fine playing, one of the big big tracks "New York se Levante" a tight sycopated mid paced swinger is capable of insciting total mayhem on the dancefloor.
"Tite" Curet Alonso was once described as the Beethoven of Puerto Rico. A prolific composer he was one of the great songwriters of the '70s providing countless hits for other top artists. A great reissue by him from 1974 has appeared titled Aqui estoy con un poco de algo (WSLatino), the quality of the songs and arrangements are outstanding. A hint of Brazil is in there, while the piano and vibe playing of Jorge Millet is totally mindblowing, the jazziness of his playing especially on ""Eres La Mulata" is quite breathtaking. 1974 was indeed a very good year for music and the master of the Salsa mixing desk the ledgendary Irv Greenbaum worked his magic on this release, as well as about every Latin release of note in the '70's and '80s.
Irv is a true giant of a man whose personal musical connections go way back to the '50s and NY poet Moondog.
Finally Sterns have a interesting second release from Kandia Kouyate
she is considered one of Mali's best griot chantressues, Biriko
is a fine recording which along side her vocals and the traditional kora,
balaphon and ngoni of her regular band, backing vocals by five women and
one man. Is added guitar bolon, percussion, flutes, trumpets, trombone sax
and accordian. As well as guitar from legend Djelimady Tounkara. Very beautiful
stuff Kandia Kouyate really is a great vocalist and sings with such power
Copyright 2002 Dave Hucker