The gliding ease of Specialist in All Styles doesn't even hint at the long and tortuous road that led to its arrival. Orchestra Baobab no longer existed when World Circuit label founder Nick Gold decided that Senegal's seminal band deserved an album of new material following the success of 2001's Pirates Choice. Problem was, Baobab had recorded the songs on Pirates Choice almost twenty years earlier in 1982, and the group had split apart by the end of the 1980s when its music had fallen from favor at home.
Things could hardly have been more different in 1970, when Orchestra Baobab enjoyed the most auspicious startup any band could hope for. Three ministers in the Senegalese government decided to bankroll a chic nightclub to compete with Dakar's trendy Miami Club, home to the capital's best-known musical group, the Star Band. To ensure the success of the new club, the owners raided six members from the Star Band for the Baobab Club's house band. These included saxophonist Baro N'Diaye, self-taught Togolese guitarist Barthélemy Attisso -- who had originally moved to Dakar to study law -- and singers Rudy Gomis and Balla Sidibe.
Medoune Diallo, with his passionate sonero's voice and respectable delivery of Spanish-language lyrics, nurtured the love affair with Cuban-derived pop music that had dominated Africa for decades. As African nations increasingly shook off their colonial past, however, indigenous styles moved toward the forefront. Griot singer Laye Mboup brought traditional Wolof songs into the Baobab repertoire for a bit of gritty local ambiance. The mix proved wildly popular, and soon the band was performing seven nights a week at the club. Along with the Star Band, Guinea-Bissau's Bembeya Jazz National, and Mali's Rail Band, Orchestra Baobab achieved dizzying heights of regional popularity.
Everything changed by the end of the Seventies when the Star Band's new musical style called mbalax shook up the prevailing Cuban influences with stuttering rhythms, bursts of rapid-fire percussion from handheld Wolof tama drums, and edgy guitar excursions. But the Star Band's biggest sensation was lead vocalist Youssou N'Dour, who contributed a nasal, Islamic-inflected delivery, hard-bitten passion, and a seemingly limitless falsetto range. In 1982, the year that N'Dour launched his international career fronting his own group, Super Étoile de Dakar, Orchestra Baobab retreated to the studio to record a set of velvety smooth Cuban-sounding songs. While the album did little for the band in Senegal, a French release gradually achieved legendary status. During the same years that the band was disintegrating back home, its reputation rose abroad as bootlegs of the 1982 sessions made the rounds.
One captivated listener was Nick Gold, whose decision to start the World Circuit record label sprang from his enthusiasm for the Baobab tracks. In 1989, with a nod to all the bootlegs that had preceded it, World Circuit released the material as Pirates Choice. The album had two far-reaching effects. It brought the then-defunct Orchestra Baobab its first international exposure. It also spawned Gold's interest in the pop music of prerevolutionary Cuba, setting the wheels in motion for the Buena Vista Social Club recordings, which Gold produced with Ry Cooder.
The Social Club franchise revealed a huge audience for the classic Cuban sound. So in 2001 Gold reissued Pirates Choice as a double CD containing six additional tracks from the 1982 sessions. He also tracked down the Baobab members for a supporting tour, which garnered such rave reviews that a new album became a no-brainer.
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If any doubts existed as to whether the reunited band could top Pirates Choice, Specialist in All Styles quashes them. The joyous guitar and drum interplay that kicks off disc opener "Bul Ma Min" generates sparks from a Jamaican rock steady-style rhythm even while it bathes the flames with cool vocal harmonies. Before you've caught your breath, Barthélemy Attisso strides in rippling his guitar strings like the teeth of a pocket comb. The hand drums roil as the codas pile up, clutching us to a mythical Afro-Cuban bosom that smells of gardenias and sweet yesterdays.
"Jinn Ma Jinn Ma" puts the slinky mambo moves on cruise control with Baro N'Diaye's continental saxophone swoops, as vocalist Rudy Gomis coos, urges, and laments with the poised persuasion of a 1940s cinema star. This time around Attisso uncoils a snaky solo that moves from muted San Francisco Summer of Love concatenations to creamy George Benson chording. Each song basks in humidity and extended twilight, supported by production that maintains a concert ambiance reminiscent of the 1982 songs, where warm, slightly fuzzy sound substitutes for digital extremes. But the arrangements are fuller than Pirates Choice and the climaxes harder-hitting.
An obvious comparison is a recasting of Pirates opener "Utrus Horas" as "Hommage á Tonton Ferrer." The passionate song brings the African-Cuban connection full circle as guest vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer joins Baobab's Gomis, Ndiouga Dieng, and Assane Mboup on lead vocals. The 1982 version was an appropriately solemn warning to the breakaway Senegalese region of Casamance. The update loses little of the drama of the original, but when Ferrer steps in to deliver his trademark neck-prickling croon, except for the electric guitars and African drums, the piece comes across like a romantic bolero from Ferrer's post-Buena Vista Social Club solo album. Icing on the cake is a second guest vocal on the song by none other than Youssou N'Dour -- who originally knocked Baobab from grace in 1982 and who returned to co-produce Specialist.
It's sort of a West African version of the Buena Vista Social Club story: The music of an older generation reaches a new generation of listeners. But the payoff for the band isn't the acclaim the album is receiving here. It's a bid to return to the top of the heap back home.