Cuban music in Africa could be said to resemble a snake biting its own tail: Like the ancient alchemical symbol of the ouroborus, it represents unity and change all at the same time. This is because Cuba's family tree goes back to Africa on both sides--on the one side circuitously through Moorish Spain to North Africa, and on the other directly through West Africa. Cuban music and identity has always been seen as a divine fusion that is almost a contradiction in terms--"la mezcla mas pura" says Los Van Van's Mayito, or the "purest mixture" of African, Spanish and indigenous elements.
Orchestra Baobab might have created something similar for pan-African identity in the '70s, when it came up with a classically Senegalese sound that was also the first world fusion. They did so by combining Latin vibes--not a novelty, but a fad in West Africa throughout the '60s--and traditional West African styles, bringing together musicians from Togo, Morocco, Guinea-Bissau and all the different regions of Senegal.
Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 as the house band of a government hangout that was reportedly painted on the inside to resemble a huge baobab tree. Since baobab trees are nearly indestructible and thought to house the spirits of griots, or Wolof praise singers, the name reflected the Negritude and self-confidence of a freshly independent Senegal. True to that ideal, Orchestra Baobab took the Latin pachanga and infused it with African musical elements. The most striking additions were a terrific griot singer, Laye M'Boup, and a Togolese law student with some hot, wet guitar licks named Barthelemy Attiso.
Without a doubt, they were the hottest band in Senegal until 1979 when the Baobab Club closed shop, and musical trends started to change. Youssou N'Dour's rise to stardom with the harder, faster, more African sound of mbalax music put the last nail in the coffin, and Orchestra Baobab retired in 1982 after a final recording session.
For most of the '80s, these session tapes were the holy grail of cult collectors like World Circuit Records' Nick Gold, who reissued Baobab's swan song album under the title Pirate's Choice in 1989.
Underground fans like Gold tend to rave unconditionally about Baobab's sound. "They'd achieved some sort of perfection," he says in a BBC interview. "They'd created this thing that was perfect. It had endless amounts of space in it, but it was always full at the same time."
Now he and N'Dour--ironically, the man who put Baobab out of business in the '80s--have produced a reunion album reassembling many of the original members of Orchestra Baobab, and called appropriately Specialist in All Styles. Recapturing a groove after 15 years apart can be tricky, but this reunion album is nothing short of miraculous. A young griot singer Assane M'Boup replaces Laye M'Boup (no relation), who died in a car crash in 1974, and saxophonists from the mbalax scene have been added. Attiso put down his law practice in Togo and sounds better than ever on guitar, complementing original singers Medoune Diallo, Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe.
More laidback and shimmery than New York salsa, and more modern than son, Specialist in All Styles grooves like vital clockwork. The Cuban son tunes tend to arrive in a minor key, vis a vis the major key sunshine of some of the more distinctly African tunes like "Sutukun" and "Gnawoe." Attiso's solos are magical, and the electric guitar, adding the subtlest flavorings of ska, surf and doowop, is clearly an agent of modernity in this mix. Meanwhile, the griot singing of M'Boup and Ndiouga Dieng add ancient, high seriousness, often with a piercing, meditative quality. Ibrahim Ferrer adds floating, atmospheric vocals to one track, bringing closure to the cycle of Cuban/African/world music influence.
Baobab's comeback can be seen in the context of a greater phenomenon, which is the persistence and growth of Latin music in West Africa. It is known in Senegal today as salsa mbalax, and several of Baobab's original singers have actually recorded African salsa in the interim. Both Thione Seck and Medoune Diallo have recorded with the supergroup Africando, who generally "harden" their sound by adding Cuban and New York salseros. Diallo brings his Latin skills to Specialist, with a Spanish version of "El Son Te Llama."
It's a bit of an open question as to how Cuban music came to be so influential in Africa in the first place, which is usually seen as the cradle of Cuban rhythm. "Pachanga" seems to be common Senegalese shorthand for Latin music, which dates the era of intense influence to the early '60s, right around the time of the revolutions in both Cuba and Senegal.
In Cuba, the pachanga came to power about the same time as Castro, and in fact, Castro reportedly played Eduardo Davidson Cruz's 1959 hit "La Pachanga" at some of his speeches. The word originally just meant a dance party, but it became associated with a fashionable dance craze that really found its sealegs in New York. Charlie Palmieri, Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco all took up pachanga by 1961, based on the songs of Cuban charanga orchestras which used violins and flutes like Orquestas Sublime and Aragon. By 1962, Eddie Palmieri came along and switched out trombones for the violins in his La Perfecta band, changing the history of salsa forever.
Meanwhile, by the 1970s Orchestra Baobab had fully syncretized the pachanga into something distinctly modern and Senegalese, by incorporating guitars, saxophones and a myriad of African instruments, languages and traditions. As an expression of pan-African identity, it was perfect--a mixture so pure, that although specialized, it had room for everything.