Although hardly a household name for those not regularly following developments in ‘world’ music, Senegalese supergroup Orchestra Baobab appear to inspire considerable devotion in their audience. One couple have followed them both within and outside the UK since they reunited in 2001 to much deserved acclaim and success. There is a strong sense of excitement and anticipation at London’s Barbican Centre – this is the first time the group have played here in more than three years.
Baloji (another exciting act from Kinshasa) takes on his role as ‘warm-up’ act with admirable gusto. There are plenty of exhortations to the audience to stand up and participate, as well as some deep and engaging grooves. There’s a pretty heavy contrast here between traditional influences and a much more contemporary take on this music. Baloji’s own vocals are shouted or spoken, whilst the band behind him either plays mellifluously or directly and with considerable authority. Occasionally it sounds a little messy, but there’s no denying Baloji’s charisma and defiance, or the scorching impact of a track like Karibu Ya Bintou. “They like to call this world music”, he says, before a stirring performance of Independence Cha-Cha, “but this is OUR music.” The album, which appeared at the tail end of last year, features guest performances from major acts such as Konono No. 1 and Amp Fiddler and is well worth investigating.
With much of their extensive discography unavailable internationally, Orchestra Baobab are free to rework gems from their rich history and keep them sounding fresh. Their Cuban influenced take on Wolof and Son traditions is lustrous and rousing – and it isn’t too long before the conventional concert hall atmosphere of the Barbican is transformed into a party. Four songs in, and a spectacular Papa Ndiaye brings everyone to their feet.
Unfortunately, there appears to be a struggle throughout with the clip on mics for at least one of the saxophones. This seems frustrating for the band, restricting their movement a little more than they would perhaps like, but it certainly doesn’t stop them from having a good time. Right from the outset, there is some superb formation dancing from the saxophone section on Ndiaga Niaw, and this jubilant spirit continues throughout the entire show.
This superb band is remarkably flexible and interchangeable. Virtually all members seem to sing, play percussion or at various points do both. This means that the whole band, including the frontline, are immersed in both the melodic and rhythmic framework of the music – a tremendously important characteristic of the performance that helps make it so vital and entertaining. If on the surface the most exciting element is the fluid, eloquent, crystal clear guitar playing of Barthelemy Attisso, the sensitive and nuanced support he receives from the whole band also helps make him sound so good.
For all their energy and restlessness, the band are not immune to moments of emotion or reflection. There’s a melancholy tinge to the delightful vocal harmony on Deer Moo Woor and the beautiful Utus Horas is one of the most warmly received songs of the night. Moments such as this mean the band can hardly be accused of being one dimensional or having restrictive limitations – and also help the surging celebratory spirit of moments such as Bul Ma Min connect even more with this highly appreciative audience.
Without a new recording to promote, both band and audience could treat this gig as a time to recap and celebrate an impressive career. It’s a valuable opportunity to acknowledge the major contribution Orchestra Baobab have made to contemporary African music.