Missed Music

Music you didn’t know you needed…until now.

West Africa meets Cuba, old school style by Orchestra Baobab

I always love music that results from the collision of two traditions. Jazz and hip-hop is a favorite. I like regrooved classic recordings, alt-country, things like that. I almost always like the collision of two national traditions, like when Western artists collaborate with Middle Eastern ones. Today, I want to recommend a brilliant mash up of western African traditions and the music of Cuba.

These guys really dig in. The shortest song on the double album is 6:44.

I have a friend and fellow audiophile who used to manage a book/music store, back when such things could be run profitably. A few years ago, he handed me a disc saying he thought I might enjoy it. I thought he was handing me something he knew and loved, but it turns out he had only read good press about it. Either way, he was right on target. The disc was “Pirate’s Choice,” a kind of comeback album by multinational band and international hit Orchestra Baobab.

Orchestra Baobab is a Senegalese band who were famous in Africa in the 1970s for combining African musical traditions with Cuban rhythms. I was too young and too far away to have ever heard of them back in the day, but apparently they were a pretty big deal over there. By the late 1980s their popularity flagged and the band broke up.

Their last recording in the 80s enjoyed a revival in Europe when it was re-released in 2001. Facing the prospect of eager audiences and their dollars, the band re-formed. They have released 2 more albums since their reunion and are still making new music more than 20 years since they broke up.

“Pirate’s Choice” was the last of their recordings before the breakup and it is my favorite of the ones I’ve heard (though, admittedly I haven’t heard them all). Listen to these to get a flavor for this double album.

  • Coumba – This is typical of their sound. Clean African guitar, Cuban percussion, and engaging harmony lead vocals. You will get a good feel for the whole album from this track.
  • Ledi Ndieme – The Orchestra sounds more traditionally African on this track, particularly the meandering and expressive vocal line.
  • Ray M’bele – And here is a very Cuban sounding track all the way through. The Latin vocal style and saxophone are no more important to this song than the percussion, which dominates the groove. Contrast this with Ledi Ndieme M’Bodj and you get the two ends of their spectrum. Their genius is that they blend these two traditions at varying levels depending on the song.
  • La Rebellion – This one starts out sounding like it will be a beautiful sounding ballad but it quickly gains momentum. Eventually, stirring saxophone and some exciting and energetic percussion dominate the song.

I was lucky enough to see Orchestra Baobab at Bonnaroo in 2008. See them if you can; the sound is a lot of fun.

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December 9, 2010 - Posted by | World Music

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