Saturday, 4 February 2017

Orchestra Baobab:A band for all ages.

I'd been feeling a bit run down all day on Tuesday. It might've been the incessant drizzle but more likely it was the previous day's walk (and even more so the previous day's beer intake). But by the time I left the Roundhouse after Senegalese sensations Orchestra Baobab's exhilarating performance my back had straightened up and my spirits had lifted as high as that building's lofty rafters.

I'd seen them play as part of a double header with the Afro-Cuban All Stars in Somerset House back in 2004. On a balmy summer evening I swayed rapt in the Neoclassical courtyard and all felt well with the world. If they could repeat that trick in a railway shed in Chalk Farm then I would be convinced of their genius.

Well, they only went and did it. It's always a pleasure to watch a large band when they're firing on all cylinders and the ten piece Baobab were certainly doing that. Back in 1970 many of the original band members had been playing in Dakar's Miami Club as part of The Star Band which also featured Youssou N'Dour. A key contributor was, and still is, the Togolese guitarist Barthelemy Attisso. He'd been studying law in Dakar at the time (he now maintains a practice in the Togolese capital Lome) and when he joined the band his gorgeous guitar playing became an inimitable trademark of their sound, giving it an undeniable warmth and depth.

Having formed 47 years back it's no surprise they've lost a few members along the way. Casamance vocalist Laye Mboup died (in a car crash) as far back as 1974. Ndiouga Dieng passed away last year and his son, Alpha, was on stage to sing opening track Dee Moor Woor. Perhaps the most reggae infused of their works it still mixed in their trademark elements of swinging jazz, traditional West African music, and a generous dollop of Latin loveliness. Some son, some merengue, some pachanga. It's all mixed up so well you don't so much identify each ingredient as simply enjoy the sensation of being aurally massaged by them all at once.

Alpha Dieng, rather fantastically, stayed on stage for the rest of the set though he did rather cede control of proceedings to saxophonists Issa Cissoko and Thierno Koite. Swaggering around the stage, joshing with other band members, acting out pretend little conversations on the apron of the stage, and inviting each musician into the spotlight for a solo (the shyer ones were coaxed, almost shoved, to the front). No solo overstayed its welcome and each was a joy to behold. Sometimes I see the word 'blistering' used to describe solos but it wouldn't be right here. The players of Baobab seem to caress, rather than beat, the music out of their instruments.

There were no lowlights but for me Buul Ma Min was a particular highlight. It raised the hairs on my back, a huge round of applause, and most of the audience to their feet. For a nominally seated gig I'd rarely seen so many people up and dancing. When considering how many 'experienced' people were in the crowd (my gig going buddy Pam remarked that, for once, we were the youngsters) that was no small feat.

As snaking guitar line fed into joyous sax burst and thence into masterful timbales work I felt better and better, happier and happier. Sometimes the extraordinary power of music means we can forget about the everyday, put aside the (very real) worries of the world and live in the moment. Almost as if time has stood still. I'm very pleased to report that the medicine on offer from Orchestra Baobab on Tuesday night was very much of that nature. I'm still beaming now.

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