(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 4, 2001)
Life can be rough.
Sometimes all those diverse strands that make up your life, the things that create the what and who you are and constitute you, combine. Occasionally, all these things flow together easily. Sometimes they are synchronized perfectly, with all of the cogs meshing smoothly. You are exactly at the right place at precisely the right time. You are spot-on and on the money. Sometimes this is a point where musical history collides, mainly it is where your own particular music history happens. For me, these memorable moments occured while watching Bob Marley at the Lyceum, Youssou N'Dour at the Venue, Baaba Maal at the basketball pitch in Ziguinchor, the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, Franco at the Hammersmith Palais, the Clash at Harlesden, and Los Van Van at the Empire.
Other times the dice fall in a different way. In those cases you have to walk away and shrug sadly. Long ago I had given a very big shrug, a shoulder-heaving shudder, accepting the fact that I had missed both Etoile de Dakar and Orchestre Baobab during that seminal period - the '70s and early '80s. That fertile era when Cuban and Puerto Rican-influenced Senegalese music run tings, when Etoile De Dakar / Star Band / Number One and Baobab run tings.
So I was very, very happy to find Orchestre Baobab playing live on my doorstep for the first time in nearly 17 years, with almost the original lineup. They were in London as part of series of concerts called Urban Beats at the Barbican Center. The Barbican, an early '70s hammered-concrete arts venue in the City, was transported to Dakar for the night. Alongside the griot singers and Baobab and topping the bill was Viviane N'Dour, while in the foyer a dj and rappers performed. Youssou himself was supposed to MC the event, but he did not turn up. Scurrilous rumors circulated that this was because he did not want to be upstaged by some of the young hot singers on the bill.
It seemed quite appropriate that this concrete manifestation of the architectural past and possibly the future allowed this vision of the musical past, and certainly a musical present, a space in which to operate for a short time. With Baobab the music was just so beautifully retro - two guitars, bass, timbales, conga, sax, keyboard and vocalists. The lineup featured original members Barthelmey Attisso on lead guitar, timbales player Balla Sidibe, Charlie Ndiaye on bass, Radolphe Gomez on vocals and percussion alongside Mountaga Kouyate on conga. Other original members like vocalist Medoune Diallo are now resident over in the Africando Quartier.
This was deep stuff. Very pure. But how can you really talk about musical purity when this stuff is constructed out of a WestAfrican R&B Rock n' Roll Latin-style mix that certainly seems to have snuck in under the wire? Guitars au go-go with Link Wray, Hank Marvin and the omnipresent - for Senegalese guitar players - Carlos Santana are all in there, by the buckets full. There was no attempt to put on any form of "entertainment" - what you got was just a bunch of guys playing fantastic music and looking like they were really enjoying it. All they needed to do was run through a whole heap of their old classic tunes like the sensuous "Coumba," "Utru Horas" and "Werente Serigne." The luxuriant gentle polyrhythms of "Ray Mbele" rolled out and everyone was happy, the electricity in the hall binding all the human molecules together for a common love experience. Just like the concrete, I suppose.
Previously my only physical contact with the wonderful world of Orchestre Baobab was through the three releases that World Circuit put out in the late '80s. Pirates Choice was the first one and a critical and sales hit followed on by On Verra Ca and Bamba. These were all compilations that were culled from Baobab's '78-82 recordings. Now World Circuit is reissuing Pirates Choice with six unreleased tracks as a double cd. I think it is the right time to do this.
Described as legendary at the time of its release, Pirates Choice actually was the final album they made before the group disintegrated. It always was a lost classic, named because this recording, made for a German label, was so in demand it had been bootlegged many times. By the time of World Circuit's '89 reissue, even in just the seven short years that followed its recording, Pirates Choice had really achieved legendary status.
I cannot praise this music any higher. Without Baobab there would no Africando. It is subtle, smooth, powerful, off the wall, meaningful and emotional, It swings, combining the New World and Old World. It is historically important, and you can have a good dance to it.
I was very interested to hear the unreleased tunes from the PC session included on the second cd. I was not disappointed, they are just as good. This must be the stuff shelved off the original release because of the running time limitations of the media (vinyl and cassettes) available at the time. "Ngalam" has great vocals. "Ndiaga Niaw" is a smoldering standout with an arresting melody and strong hook line, while "Baila Daffle" is a jump-up in the Toots and the Maytals style. In fact it is so melodically close to "Sweet and Dandy" that I wonder did Baobab actually catch Toots live at some point? Was it one of those momentous collisions of history or did they hear it as a murderation tune in one of the hip clubs of the time, or on the radio?
Obiviously, the original audio side of things have been cleaned up for this release, which is very nice, thank you. But just to float an idea about all this reissue bizness. Why not also include a cd of the tapes, just as they were recorded at the session, with no recent manipulation and cleaning up of the sound? I'm sure it would be interesting for many two-bit dingbats like me to be able to hear the pure, original, unrestored, warts-and-all session. I mean that's why I choose to put on an old record, rather than a modern cd, just to get that sound.
Welcome back, Baobab.
I was also very pleased to see Viviane N'Dour. Her stunning looks and popular modern mbalax groove has quite justifiably got the youth of Dakar all a-tremble. Madonna with mbalax could be one way of describing it. Her voice managed to successfully fill the few spaces left in the very powerful and complex riddims. The sabar drums cracked with a very sharp, tough beat. Viviane's style is sometimes called Senegalese r&b. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you can dominate a full beat, a very complex and rhythmically compelling beat, that is not what is known as r&b today. If you flip back three decades and start talking Anne Peebles and the Hi label, then I might agree with you.
Arte Mixto's previous release Virginia found a permanent home in my playing-out pouch. So I was pleased to receive the latest installment in their Cienfuegos life story. Sin Chisme (Ahi Nama) is another superfine rocking release, even better than their previous two offerings to the gods of the public. If you are a manufactured pop Latin band like DLG you self-destruct and go off the boil after three records, but Arte Mixto are just starting to simmer.
Sin Chisme is packed full of great tunes. Powered along by the powerful guitar-led groove, it starts out with a strong dance-floor contender titled "La Maraca" and gets better. But then every song on this fantastic release is a dance-floor contender. You've got the whole range, the mid-paced to fast scorchers like the first track and "Rompiendo el Hielo," while "Yemeya" also causes havoc when she steps on the dance floor. One of Arte Mixto's (many) strong points is lead singer Mariso Lujan who manages to sound soft and hard at the same time, especially on "Yemaya," where her feral growl reminds me so much of the late great '50s Cuban singer La Lupe.
On "Amarte Mas," you've got a slowish soulful beginning which gets stronger but not faster in its groove despite a wisp of charanga violin and the very rich and filling vocals. The word that seems to get bandied around about when describing Arte Mixto is "modern son," mixing the sound of the country with the sound of the city of Havana, which they do especially well.
Leader and violinist Alexis Correa is to be congratulated not only for his exquisite violin playing and arranging but having the vision to set this group rolling in the first place on the road to, if not stardom, then at least to getting full respect for who they are from a worldwide fan base and earning a good living doing it.
I was dancing down the road with an accordion. Having a close relationship, she didn't mind as I squeezed her. I had fallen for her corrugated heart the moment it had wheezed out at me. I was besotted, gone, lost in love.
It had been bellowing out from the speakers.
I was playing Rumba Congo by Kekele, a great new release from Stern's. This is a superb step back in time from many of the old stars of Congolese music: Nyboma, Syran Mbenza, Papa Noel, Jean Papy, Loko Massengo AKA Djeskain, Bumba Massa, Wuta Mayi and Cameroonian Yves Ndjock. This very simple, very acoustic recording is only violin and single sax, guitars and fabbo vocals, and of course that accordion which underpins the whole enterprise.
The tunes are a mix of Congo classics and some new things done in the old style. Superb singing and real melodies grace every track on this old-fashioned rumba collection. With a gentle drift down the Congo river to Leopoldsville this wonderful album is not be missed. I was shooting the breeze over a beer, chatting to a fellow partner in crime in the dj biz about this release, and we both concluded that this was really very good. Air and breath of fresh seemed to be the common opinion.
Those jolly nice chappies down at the Soul Jazz offices in deepest Soho, London's bustling central area, have been very busy. Their latest killer-diller compilation to flip the wigs of the hipshaking finger-popping Daddy-Os who inhabit their buying public is Studio One Soul, a monstrous compilation of soul and funk cuts Coxsone style, with some of the best JA versions of soul tunes ever: Leroy Sibbles' "Express Yourself," Otis Gayle, "I'll Be Around," Ken Boothe's "Set Me Free," Norma Frazier's "Respect." Willie Willams' "No One Can Stop Us" is a permanent big-time fave cut, rootsical and suave. But the chilling version of Sly Johnston's "Is It Because I'm Black" by Senior Soul is just one of those great moments in time and space.
The hits just keep on a-coming, and coming and coming. Every tune is essential and in some cases quite rare. I cannot speak too highly of this stunning collection, which has been compiled with great love and authority by Mark Ainley, co-owner of Portobello Road record shop Honest Jon's. [www.souljazzrecords.co.uk]
Honest Jon's is one of my local vinyl emporiums. Those of you who e-mail me and say "Where on earth can I get that?" know that I often say "Honest Jon's mail order can sort you out, talk to Mark." When I go in there to buy new stuff I trust their judgement implicitly. When Mark tells me, "This one is right up your strasse," I believe him.
Copyright 2001 Dave Hucker