Gnawoe - Orchestra Baobab - Specialist In All Styles (2002)
Comeback Album Mini Series - Pt. 2
Orchestra Boabab (OB) are a new group for me. I discovered them in a somewhat strange fashion just last week, as I was shamelessly scrolling through my endless feed of internet drivel, handpicked for me by the folks at Alphabet Inc. I must admit, the internet overlords did a good one this time. Some video from the early 2000's of Trey Anastasio and Dave Matthews traveling to Africa to play music with a band from Dakar, Senegal caught my eye, and I was hooked. It's fairly late as I sit down to write this (8pm on a school night), but I'm excited about what might end up on the page. Away we go.
Prior to releasing this album, OB had not authored any material since 1986, or maybe even 1982, depending on how you look at things. It seems like 1982 was the last time the band was fully formed and putting music together before officially disbanding in the late 80's. To my eye, most of the releases in the mid 80's were represses of older material, and not actually recorded by the band for a new album. Before we get all lost in the details of this album, we should continue to talk about the origins of the OB.
What's a Baobab? It's a tree. Duh. But they don't just grow on Madagascar. There are apparently two species of Baobab native to mainland Africa, at least one of which can be found in the sub-Saharan regions (e.g. Senegal). OB got their start as the house band at the Baobab Club, a basement nightclub located in Dakar, the capital of the west African country of Senegal. The Baobab Club itself was allegedly started by a handful of government ministers who wanted a cool place to hang out, for lack of a better description. Turns out they got a pretty cool place, and a great band, to boot. In the 70's the OB were playing the club four nights a week, and it seems by all accounts that the both the club and the band were doing quite well for themselves. Below is a photo of a Baobab in the middle of a car lot in Senegal. Photographed by Thomas Munita, ladies and gentlemen, for the New York Times.
The OB rode pretty high for a decade or more, but times and music and styles all do change. With the arrival of the 80's, the band were starting to lose their audience. Guitarist Barthelemy Attisso recounts the bands feelings at this time. "We were wondering what to do? Should we also take up mbalax and give up our own style? In the end we decided against following fashion. That meant our gradual decline." So, in the late 80's, the band officially broke up, instead of following fashion. Respect.
In the years between the late 80's and the early 2000's, the band wasn't together. Attisso, the guitarist mentioned above (and one of many band members who had moved on to other occupations), had returned to Togo (different country) to practice law. Interestingly enough, it was his desire to study law that originally brought him to Dakar. While in the city, Attisso realized he needed a source of income to get him through school. So he decided to learn the guitar, and ended up being an integral member of what is now a world renowned band. Dude still practices law when he's not touring or recording. What a badass.
Although OB weren't doing much in this time period, they still got some attention. Some tracks that were originally recorded in '82 got repressed and issued in Europe as Pirate's Choice in 1987. This album is incredible. Listen to it. They also had help from folks like Dave and Trey, who helped get them in to that VH1 rotation. In the late 90's there were grumblings about recording a new album. In a charming twist of fate, Specialist In All Styles was produced in part by a man named Youssou D'Nour. D'Nour helped pioneer the mbalax sound in the 80's, which probably had a good deal to do with OB's decline in popularity. To cut to the chase, the band got back together in London, and recorded this album in about ten days. And it's good. At risk of dwelling on the pre-comeback portion of this story, I would highly highly highly recommend everyone to listen to the entire Pirate's Choice album. That being said, Specialist In All Styles will not let you down. And besides, you can't really have a comeback album without having already crushed it in years prior. Or at least sliding in to relative unpopularity. Or doing both. But let's not dwell on these things. So go listen, and have fun.