A few years ago, my cousin gave me Orchestra Baobab’s fabulous double-disc album, Pirates Choice. Orchestra Baobab was a Senegalese band in the 1970s that fused traditional and modern instruments to create a wonderfully exotic, Afro-Cuban-Caribbean sound. Their focus on intertwining rhythms is great, and for me, not understanding the lyrics actually enhances the voice as an instrument (although, I’m sure the lyrics are great, too).
Orchestra Baobab relies on traditional hand drum rhythms to form the base of each groove. Reverb-a-licious guitar lines add a second layer, with a bold tenor saxophone often carrying a melody or supportive riffs above that. The earthy, raw vocals add to the pulse of each song, resulting in an undeniable groove. Pirates Choice is their most famous album, and its good reputation is well deserved. When I heard the first fat, raw notes from the sax beckoning me to pay attention in “Utrus Horas,” I was hooked. The contrast of the subtle rhythm section with the fantastically pushy saxophone and moving vocal seems like it would create a top-heavy sound, but it doesn’t. The rhythms and melodies complement each other nicely for an even sound. Although the second track (“Coumba”) is not my favorite, it employs a light clave to hold down the pretty, floating guitar melodies. The back-up vocals take on a chanting quality that echoes the lead vocal’s lines. Personally, I rarely love happy, upbeat songs because they bore me, but Orchestra Baobab’s aren’t bad. Unlike the music critics, I prefer the first disc to the second, but the tracks from the second disc are still enjoyable. Overall, the album’s delicate balance of upbeat, happy songs with darker, more contemplative tunes is excellent.
A few months ago, I browsed through Orchestra Baobab’s other CDs on iTunes to see if they were just a Senagalese one-hit wonder or if they had other good albums. I discovered that they reunited for the 2002 album Specialist in All Styles with Ibrahim Ferrer (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) and Youssou N’dour. The lofty praise from the critics about Specialist intrigued me, but I doubted the album would live up to the hype. Especially since the critics maintained Specialist was better than Pirates Choice. Well, the critics were right, and the album blew me away.
I first noticed that Specialist in All Styles feels more urgent than Pirates Choice. The band adds in more elements to the modern drum set, notably the snare drum, which in turn, causes the songs to have more drive. Additionally, the songs seem to have more grit to them. While maintaining technical proficiency, the musicians expose the raw guts of each song. No longer is there a mellow undertone—that’s okay! The recording quality is better on these tracks, and that may account partially for the crisper sounds. In general, the band is tighter, the sound is fuller and the grooves still flow.
My favorite tracks are “Bul ma min,” “Hommage a Tonton Ferrer,” and “El son te llama.” And “Dee moo woor.” So really, half of the album. In “Dee moo woor,” the rhythm section provides sparse, fat hits that make the vocals sound naked. This nakedness is great because it highlights the talent of the singers and gives them more freedom. “Hommage a Tonton Ferrer” is really a faster and probably better version of “Utrus Horas.” Specialist in All Styles is a master class in pouring your heart out into each song. The raw emotion is moving and the energy is infectious.
If you were looking for some world music, I would definitely recommend either of these two albums. Depending on whether you’d like your music with a side dish of teeth, I’d refer you to Specialist in All Styles, but either should satisfy your need for great music with an irresistible groove.