From inauspicious beginnings as the weekend house band at a Dakar club for government officials, Senegal's Orchestra Baobab, named for the club (which in turn took its name from the native baobab tree), went on to become one of the seminal bands of world music, with an influence that extended far beyond their national boundaries, throughout West Africa and into Europe.
Put together by original leader and saxophonist Baro N'Diaye, the first version was a seven-piece group, three of them enticed away from Dakar's biggest band, the Star Band, who had a regular gig at Ibra Kasse's club. While they had a strong Cuban influence -- Cuban music had been a prevalent sound throughout West Africa since the '40s, imported by sailors and played on the radio -- Orchestra Baobab added African music, in large part by griot singer Laye M'Boup, who had a vast repertoire of Wolof material. It wasn't long before the new sound proved so popular that the group weren't just entertaining on weekends but every night of the week, being hailed on par with Guinea's legendary Bembeya Jazz for their fusion of sounds.
Inevitably, personnel fluctuated, and the new musicians brought their own influences, expanding the feel and range of the band with Maninke and Malinke songs, which became integrated into the whole. Perhaps the most important addition was singer Thione Seck, who took over the lead vocalist spot after the death of M'Boup in a 1974 car wreck (although several rumors concerning a jealous husband surrounded his death). They continued to play the Baobab Club regularly, but also entertained at state occasions, such as official New Year's Eve dances and even at the wedding of designer Pierre Cardin's daughter in Paris. Finally, the Baobab Club closed in 1979 (some historians say 1977) and the band went on to make their home at the Ngalam nightclub (or the Djandeer Club, according to some historians). Also during this time, they tried to make their mark in Europe by traveling to Paris in 1978. They recorded On Verra Ça: The 1978 Paris Sessions, one of their best albums and certainly the best-produced, although it leaned too heavily on their Spanish-language material. Other than that, the trip proved to be a disaster: they lost money and returned home.
At the beginning of the '80s, Orchestra Baobab were indisputably Senegal's biggest band, commanding fees of about $4,500 for a single show. They recorded regularly (two albums, Mouhamadou Bamba and Sibou Odia, were edited into Bamba, a 1983 U.S. release), and continued to stretch their limits by bringing in more African influence, which reached its height with the classic Pirates Choice of 1982. But change was on the horizon; their time was beginning to fade as another alumnus of the Star Band, young Youssou N'Dour, was bringing out a new, energetic sound called mbalax, which quickly electrified Dakar and made the more languid Orchestra Baobab seem old and dated. They tried to compete by updating their sound, but it didn't work. Even the 1985 introduction of two female singers didn't change the situation and by 1987, Orchestra Baobab had disbanded.
However, everything comes full circle, and in 2001, with the European reissue of an expanded Pirates Choice (2002 in the U.S.), Orchestra Baobab, older and wiser, re-formed and played dates around the globe, going into the studio to make a new album produced by the man responsible for their fall from grace, Youssou N'Dour. A new recording, Made in Dakar, followed in 2007. The group continued to perform on stages throughout Europe and Africa. They worked on new material, but were kept from recording due to a number of personnel changes. While the core of the band remained -- vocalists Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis, saxophonists Issa Cissokho and Thierno Koite, and the long-serving, rock-steady rhythm section of Sidibe on timbales, Charly N'Diaye on bass, and Mountaga Koite on congas -- there were important changes, too. For one, founding vocalist Ndiouga Dieng passed away in November 2016, replaced by his son Alpha. In addition, guitarist Barthelemy Attisso left music altogether to become a lawyer in Togo and was replaced by Rene Sowatche. Kora player Ablaye Cissoko joined the group to add to the string department, while trombonist Wilfried Zinzou expanded the horn section to three pieces.
After Dieng's passing, the band entered Moussa X's Dakar studio with producers Nick Gold, Lamine Faye, and Jerry Boys. They enlisted old friend Cheikh Lo as a guest on "Magno Kouto" and former bandmate -- and West African pop superstar -- Thione Seck, who left Orchestra Baobab in 1979, to reprise his first hit, "Sey." An initial single, "Foulo," was released in January 2017, followed by the full-length Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng in March. Singer, percussionist, and founding member Balla Sidibé died on July 29, 2020; he was 78 years old. ~ Chris Nickson, Rovi