by Michael Goldberg
Monday, June 30, 2003
The New Buena Vista Social Club
Orchestra Baobab's Afro-Cuban trance-rock
The repackaging of non-mainstream music styles for the white middle class has been going on for decades, and it's a sleight of hand that still provides the illusion of magic.
I came face to face with it again when I experienced the Afro-Cuban sounds of the 11-member Senegelese Orchestra Baobab the other night at the Oakland jazz nightclub Yoshi's. And, once again, I was transfixed and amazed by music that contained plenty of history, and yet felt brand new.
Orchestra Baobab includes three percussionists (Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and Mountaga Koite), two guitarists (the great Barthélemy Attisso and Latfi Ben Geloune), two saxophonists (Issa Cissokho and Thierno Koite), a bassist (Charlie Ndiaye) and three lead vocalists (Ndiouga Dieng, Assane Mboup and Medoune Diallo). A number of the musicians also provide backup, and in some cases lead, vocals.
At Yoshi's, the group played a kind of "trance" music not the electronic trance that you would find at a rave or dance club, but trance nonetheless, a true "world music" that grooves along at times over one chord, creating a mesmerizing sonic spell for listeners to fall under. Tables at the right side of the club had been cleared to create a dance area that quickly filled, and remained filled, during the hour-and-a-half, nonstop set. My wife and I joined the crowd there early on in the first song and were on our feet for probably two-thirds of the set, at times attempting to mimic the choreographed dance steps of sax man Geloune and guitarist Koite.
The musicians were dressed in matching African garb: long tops non-shiny material printed with a yellow and black African pattern that came down to nearly their knees over matching pants. Cissokho wore an African cap. The look was exotic by Western standards; somehow, when a group of musicians look like they've been beamed in from the Third World, it seems only to increase the appeal of their music.
The music was built with layers of percussive elements. The players of drums, congas and timbales, together with the bassist, created a repetitive groove over which the guitarists added high, subtle, melodic rhythms, which were punctuated by saxophone parts. Most songs featured solos from Cissokho and Attisso (some surf-style soloing even showed up in one song), and there were call-and-response vocals and much chanting.
The group many of its members drawn from the Star Band, the Miami Club's house band formed in Senegal in 1970 as the house band for the Baobab Club. Latin music, quite popular in Africa at the time, influenced the Orchestra Baobab band members, who mixed Latin rhythms with various African styles to create their own sound. A number of the musicians and singers wrote material for the band, including Rudy Gomis and Ndiouga Dieng. They recorded numerous albums during the '70s, culminating, perhaps, in 1982's Pirate's Choice, which was re-released last year. During the early '80s, younger musicians with a tougher sound usurped Orchestra Baobab's position as, perhaps, the leading Senegal combo. There were personnel changes, and eventually the group disbanded, only to re-form in 2001.
Like the Buena Vista Social Club albums, the recent (and totally mind-blowing) 2002 Orchestra Baobab release, Specialist in All Styles, is out on World Circuit/Nonesuch. As was the case with a number of albums that were made in the wake of the initial Ry Cooder-produced BVSC release, Specialist in All Styles was produced by Nick Gold (with Senegal star Youssou N'Dour) and even includes a cameo from BVSC's Ibrahim Ferrer.
The mainstream American success of Cuban music during the past few years occurred for two reasons: 1) the music was damn good; and 2) it was packaged to create a nostalgic appeal for a '50s, idealized Havana (also, it didn't hurt that Ry Cooder brought his wonderful, inclusive and very hip sensibility to the initial album). The photographs and CD design work aimed to click with a 40-to-60-year-old music fan, sick of rock but hungry for music of quality, and for a simpler, romantic time. The marketing wizards behind BVSC have done their magic with the packaging of Specialist in All Styles, as well as the Pirate's Choice re-release. Both albums play off of that yearning for the past.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with any of that. It's a formula that I first experienced in the mid-'60s with the folk revival, where old-time mountain musicians and blues cats were dusted off and presented to the twentysomething crowd at folk festivals around the U.S. A lot of people got hip to some amazing folk and blues music because of some savvy marketing (and many deserving musicians got the acclaim and financial rewards they so deserved). Sometimes the "product" being sold to us is actually worthy of our attention.
Judging from the two sold-out shows the night I went (with two more sold out for the following evening), the word about Orchestra Baobab has gotten out (via NPR and other media outlets). And it's not just the boomer crowd; when a friend told his 23-year-old son that we were going to check out Orchestra Baobab at Yoshi's, the son not only knew about them and thought they were totally cool, but wanted to attend the show (he did).
Sometimes it seems that more good music by Miles Davis has been released since his death in 1991 than during his lifetime. Sony has not only been releasing remastered versions (usually with bonus tracks) of his numerous albums, but previously unreleased live sets, plus a serious of exquisitely packaged box sets.
Sometimes it seems that every note Miles played that got on tape will, eventually, see release. In 1995 an eight-CD set came out that documented everything Miles and his excellent band (tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams) played during seven sets over the course of two nights at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago. The set is quite fantastic, truly some of the best live jazz ever recorded.
More recently, we've seen multi-disc box sets of the Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way sessions, and a number of live sets from the early '70s (some at the Fillmores West and East) from the heyday of Miles' electric period. And if you've written off "fusion," these recordings will certainly change your mind!
Coming in September is a much-anticipated set, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, an expanded version of Miles' underrated 1970 classic A Tribute to Jack Johnson. It's an amazing two-song jam featuring some of the best guitar playing of John McLaughlin's career.
Currently, I'm knee deep in the recent expanded re-release of In Person Friday Night at the Blackhawk, Complete, Vol. 1 and In Person Friday Night at the Blackhawk, Complete, Vol. 2. Each double-CD package includes the sets Miles played in 1961 on its respective night (three sets on Friday, four on Saturday) at the long-defunct San Francisco club.
The band for these dates was tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, with Miles blowing strong on trumpet, natch. For me, what Miles and company were playing in the early '60s was the epitome of "cool" jazz (although, technically, what is being played is mostly bebop and hard bop).
The sound is relaxed yet intense, with Miles taking long, expansive solos, but still giving time to each of his band members. Mobley and Kelly provide some particularly soulful solos, but Chambers and Cobb are also strong and sure throughout. The sets mix of Miles originals such as "No Blues" and "Neo" with standards including "On Green Dolphin Street," "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "All of You" (with compositions by some of Miles' contemporaries including Sonny Rollins worked into the mix).
Much has been written about the sound of Miles' trumpet playing, that lonesome, high cry. Particularly in the '50s and '60s Miles communicated a sadness, a melancholy (his playing on Sketches of Spain is a classic example of this). Throughout his two nights at the Blackhawk Miles offered example after example of the creative expression that makes it clear why he remains a jazz icon.