Issue #88: Specialist In All Styles by Orchestra Baobab
October 23, 2017
Released On September 2, 2002
Released By World Circuit Records
A little more than a week ago, Richmond played host to the city’s annual Folk Festival — a massive three-day event that routinely draws more than 200,000 attendees and makes finding a parking spot in or near downtown damn near impossible. It was — and always is — well worth the mayhem; there was bluegrass and cumbia and zydeco and wildly impressive Japanese drumming and more, performed on more than half a dozen stages sprawled out over Brown’s Island and the surrounding area.
There’s such beauty in that mayhem. The streams of people constantly moving between stages represents a magnetic curiosity that serves as the festival’s lifeblood. Thousands of seekers, trying styles from all over the world on for size. I kept thinking about last weekend’s festival when I was relistening to Specialist In All Styles this week — about how Orchestra Baobab is a folk festival unto itself. Progressing from one track to another is like walking between stages, soaking in a little of this, a little of that.
Specialist In All Styles is part of a rarified and now-extinct stratum of albums I would always, 100% of the time, download to new iPods. I had to have it with me at all times. And I have a snapshot memory of being on a Caribbean cruise in college and listening to the album via earbuds while bobbing up and down in a small ferry that went between the land and the ship anchored offshore. Those moments stand out as especially bright and vivid, and I couldn’t be more certain that it’s because there was a harmony between the experience of being on that boat in that part of the world and the music I was listening to.
But Orchestra Baobab doesn’t complement travel in some vague, island-y way; they embody it by moving from tradition to tradition, language to language, breezily yet masterfully merging styles and connecting parts of the world that are separated by thousands of miles.
Baobab got its start in the 1970s, having been the house band for a nightclub in Dakar, Senegal. And fusion was part of their identity from the very beginning. Here’s a snippet of the CD liner notes for “El Son Te Llama,” the album’s second-to-last track: “Cuban music was enormously popular in Senegal in the sixties and seventies and a host of Senegalese bands played their own interpretations of Latin repertoire.” They go so far as to call “On Verra Ça” — an import from Cuba — “the Baobab signature tune since 1976,” and they note that “Gnawoe” is sung in Mina, a language spoken in lead guitarist Barthelemy Attisso’s native country of Togo. Still, traditional Wolof singing — like on opening track “Bul Ma Miin” and on “Dée Moo Wóor” — keeps the proceedings firmly grounded in Senegal.
Both of those are sung by one of the band’s original vocalists, Ndiouga Dieng, who passed away in 2016. His death prompted the band to reunite and release a new album this year called Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Gone is Barthelemy Attisso’s virtuosic guitar — he’s back in Togo tending to his day job as a lawyer — and in its place you’ll find oodles of kora noodling. While I initially missed that brilliant, nimble guitar work, I’ve come to appreciate deeply how different this new release is. Another masterful move from a band whose musical chessboard spans the globe.
Maybe one of Orchestra Baobab’s future moves will involve gracing a stage at the Richmond Folk Festival. A tall order, given the band’s penchant for going into long stretches of hibernation. Maybe it’s my turn to travel.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Leave it to a West African ensemble to prove just how universal the language of music is.
I often fantasize about a life where I have enough time and energy to get a doctorate degree — not for anything that would actually apply to my job, but where I could research something music-related. One day, I was flipping through a compilation of Nigerian highlife music I’d just bought while listening to William Tyler’s fascinating podcast (I have mentioned it in OYR before), and I became so interested in learning more about the culture behind the way reissues are found and marketed. How has the reissue culture influenced the way we listen to international music? Who decides what is worth discovering? What are we missing? I thought of this abandoned dream as I was enjoying the very excellent 2002 release from Orchestra Baobab, Specialist In All Styles. Baobab, originally formed in the 1970s, gained popularity with the posthumous international release of their 1982 album, Pirate’s Choice, in 1989. Inspired by both the record’s acclaim and, more interestingly, the late ’90s resurgence of Buena Vista Social Club, Baobab reunited in 2001. It was really great timing, as Baobab wears its Cuban influence well — “Hommage A Tonton Ferrer,” is a sparkling tribute to BVSC bolero singer Ibrahim Ferrer, and features both Ferrer and Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour. Like other music of western Africa, there are also influences of French pop, psych, and American jazz, rock, and soul — the “all styles” of the album’s title. Sometimes I feel like I’ve heard some of the songs before, as they feel so familiar — I found myself singing the vocal melodies, especially the incredibly catchy “Bul Ma Miin,” the first time I heard them. This is a good thing, as I think the familiarity makes people comfortable with listening to something not in their native language. There was a perfect storm that caused Orchestra Baobab to reunite — the popularity of their own reissue, the worldwide interest in an obscure Cuban band — but their body of work stands on its own as a fine example of the mixing pot of West African music.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
First of all, I’d like to start off by saying hi to all of the OYR readers. Hello! I’m very much looking forward to being a part of this newsletter. Since I’m always talking about music, might as well share my opinions with other people, right? On to the record. I didn’t know quite what to expect before listening to Orchestra Baobab’s Specialist In All Styles, but after giving it a listen, it took a genre that previously was somewhere in the middle of my mental list and brought closer to the top. This is a great album. It’s fun and enjoyable, and it transports you to another place for a little while. And that is what music should be in my opinion: An escape, even for a little while. Listening to this album, I was whisked away to an island paradise. I could feel the ocean breeze and imagine dancing in the sand. The songs were uplifting, carefree, and happy. I really enjoyed the lengths of the songs as well. It gave the album more of a fluid feel as opposed to listening just track by track, something that really came through on the closing (and longest) song, “Gnawoe.” This one could have gone on forever and I wouldn’t have even come close to being bored. It had such a positive feeling, and closed out this fantastic record on a real high note. Definitely a record to be played at my summer time parties!
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
If there had been a subscription model for the World Circuit record label back in the late ’90s when Buena Vista Social Club exploded, I would have signed up, no questions asked. I loved that album because it made me realize that I had been a fan of Afro-Cuban music for years, without knowing exactly what it was. I knew “Manteca” and other Dizzy Gillespie jams that drew on the tradition, but that wasn’t the same thing. The backstory is that I grew up in upper Manhattan, in a very mixed neighborhood filled with people who had fled Castro’s regime. I remember my father telling me that the owner of the local liquor store explained that they always stocked Manischewitz because the Cubans liked sweet wine! But they also liked to drum in the park most summer nights, the sound drifting up to my bedroom window on the 11th floor and becoming part of my musical DNA. So when I put the laser on under Buena Vista, wondering what the fuss was about, and heard that rhythm, it closed a circle that had been open for decades. Naturally, having absorbed that album, I also bought the excellent records that came out in its wake by Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Omara Portuondo, finding many delights therein. Then I learned about what I call the boomerang effect: how Afro-Cuban music, which was an alchemy forged in the aftermath of the colonization of the Caribbean by Spanish slavers and their African slaves, bounced back to Dakar and other West African cities, becoming a sensation via radio and records. So naturally local musicians began to incorporate the idiom into their sounds, which is where Orchestra Baobab comes in. And it’s marvelous stuff, the Cuban rhythms blending perfectly with singing and sparkling guitar that reflect the Senegalese tradition. Specialist In All Styles was made following a long hiatus, after changing styles had sidelined the band, and was a labor of love not only for World Circuit’s Nick Gold, but also the great Senegalese singer Youssou N’dour, who co-produced the album and takes a guest turn on vocals (as does Ibrahim Ferrer). Thankfully the producers didn’t add any “modern” touches except to ensure that the sonics were superb and very dimensional. It’s very much in the flavor of what you might hear one night at Club Baobab. The Orchestra has the music covered — the dancing and cocktails are your job! P.S. Fast forward five years for Made In Dakar, which is just as good and maybe even more joyous, or rewind 20 years to Pirate’s Choice and marvel at the astonishing legacy of an iconic musical force.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Many people who love the Rat Pack are older than me, remembering the slick hair and shiny shoes of Sinatra and cronies shining through the television screen on Friday and Saturday nights, the ice in their parents’ cocktails mingling with the smooth vocals. Christmas, though, was my gateway drug to those men in their dapper suits, smiling through songs everyone seemed to know. Dignified, they bespoke a life of glamour somehow communicated as clearly through a rendition of “Silent Night” as it could be through any Vegas stage performance. Even though as a little girl I couldn’t understand the pull I felt to be swung around a dance floor by one of those voices, there it was nonetheless, just like the charm and easy spirit of Orchestra Baobab doesn’t need language to express. Each track of the 2002 revival album Specialist In All Styles feels crisply laid out, orchestrated, indeed, to put each sound equally on display. With a distinct Cuban flair mixing with a traditional fluid African rhythm and attitude, the album exudes the joy of a second chance, of flexing fingers that haven’t curved over a guitar and throats that haven’t stretched to this or that note in over a decade. Knowing this album was released after a long hiatus enhances the experience, but without that insight the album plays as a lovely, buoyant foray into reggae, Cubana, African music whose charm translates across the continents.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Though concerts should be sought out, their recordings offer a great snapshot of the creativity, freedom, and joy found within their performances.
There’s something to be said for stylistically revered groups that are not only from generations past, but come back from their dissolving with a musical vengeance of sorts and re-affirm themselves in the eyes and ears of the music world as if said work is an unknown but highly desired first debut. There’s no way to rewind time but there’s always time to listen and immerse oneself in a record and that’s what Specialist In All Styles is great for. Understanding that Orchestra Baobab is an icon within Senegal’s culture and music scene of the 1970s, and delving into the fact that Senegal’s overall history is intrinsically connected with so many other cultures even outside of Senegal’s west African region, Specialist In All Styles is a passport of a record. The blend of percussion and rustic bell driven rhythms with brightly toned guitar familiar to western listeners acts like the first, easy going stop on a loose and self-guided tour. The completely unfamiliar linguistic splash of the Wolof language (the language of Senegal, it’s spoken by more than 90% of the Senegal population), and the sliding melodic singing style of the vocals follow from there — weaving together long, legato notes and fusing micro pitches in a way that makes the singing feel like it belong in a meditative session rather than the buzzing nightlife of central Senegal. The feel of the singing contrasting so much from the instrumental support and framework might be difficult for some at the onset (there were many moments the lengthy tracks and inability to understand the lyrics left the music feeling like a serious affair.). However, once the listening experience stops being about dissecting every single aspect of the album and more about just being within it — being openly present without unrelenting scrutiny — that’s where the fun lies. Chances are very few who hear this album are going to ever find themselves traveling to Senegal, but having Specialist In All Styles opens that door. Throw the album on while preparing dinner, cue it up on your iPod while you jump in the shower before work, play it while taking a nonchalant walk in the park. The entirety of it might not be 100% accessible but that doesn’t matter. This is an album that encourages closing one’s eyes, mentally leaning back, and letting the music open a window to an culturally rich, far off place and it’s simple as that.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
It can’t be stated enough how beautiful this music is. I always worry that music in a language I’m not familiar with will be somehow boring or unrelatable, but that has never been the case in all such music that I’ve covered for OYR. Not being able to focus on what the words are allows me to focus instead on how the sounds of the vocals interact with the instruments. It’s an entirely different way of thinking. And I like it. One thing that stood out to me for this album was how, possibly because of my own ignorance, it wasn’t clear right away (or maybe even at all) where this group is from. I love that. It makes the music feel mysterious and universal. Thinking about the title, Specialist In All Styles (what a delightful contradiction that is!), this ambiguity may be intentional and not a result of my ignorance at all. One can hope. My favorite song on the album is probably “Dée Moo Wóor.” The aspect that I love is a little hard to explain, though. I really love the way the lines of the song spill over the side of the page. The singers reach what feels like the end of the number of syllables that they’re allotted and just blast past that limit by 3 or 4 syllables, which is thrilling. It happens in the chorus, for the most part, and not that I could tell in the verses. Ooh I also love the guitar that comes in the last 30 or so seconds of the song. There’s so much about this album that intrigues me that I can’t begin to put it all here. I’m very happy to have been exposed to it!
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
I hate genres, especially “world music.” Seriously, it sounds so half assed. It’s like industry experts just ran out of ideas. Pop, punk, rap, R&B — they just make sense, fitting the style of music perfectly. But when we get to the stuff with all the different drums and instruments… yeah, let’s just call that “world music.” Really, genres are dumb in general (hot take in 2017, I know), but world music just offers such a narrow presentation of what music is and can be. Just dumb. Do you want to know something else dumb? I’ve been sitting listening to Specialist In All Styles for over an hour now and I’ve been too afraid to write something substantial down because this brand of music, “world” (sigh) or not, is completely out of my area of expertise. I don’t know what the singer is singing, and I associate these instrumentals with delicious food. I’m not exactly the perfect person to talk about this record, but I can tell you what it sounds like to a complete beginner. It’s sexy, with fantastic rhythms and a diverse range of instruments. The guitar work is fantastic and well-orchestrated throughout the record, and it really chills me out, hitting that sweet, mellow spot right before lulling me to sleep. It’s got this cool Latin influence I can feel, as well as strong pop sensibility that was a great surprise. It’s the kind of the music that you want to sing along to right away, even though you don’t know the words or even language. (Basically, “Despacito,” though not the kind marketed for rural Americans hooked on Fox News and pop radio.) You might shy away from this type of music too, afraid of feeling dumb like me when trying to explain why you love it so much. But just like the only dumb question is the one left unasked, you’re only dumb if don’t get your hands on a copy of this record, because it’s just that damn good.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
I don’t think I’m out of line by saying that the act of traveling can be awful sometimes. The inefficiency of the check-in process, and the slow-moving security lines at airports can be a real bummer, and don’t even get me started on how other passengers only make it worse by completely ignoring basic human decency. Traveling is fresh on my mind because I went to Florida for a wedding this weekend, and while there were plenty of things to get annoyed about, a good chunk of it just didn’t seem so bad while listening to Orchestra Baobab’s Specialist In All Styles. I ran out of data on my phone while I was at the wedding, so I wasn’t able to research the group before listening to them but I did discover that they, or at least this specific album, made a pleasant soundtrack to traveling through JFK airport. In what could best be described as a montage of scenes from a travel movie, Specialist In All Styles had a song for nearly every occasion. A group of people standing on the moving platform, oblivious to the people trying to get around them is annoying for sure, but that same scene set to “Jiin Ma Jiin Ma?” Still annoying, but now it’s funny! The repetition of the music stresses the repetition of trying to get around those people. Strolling to the airtrain and taking notice of the mini-hot air balloons in various colors decorating the ceiling takes on a new innocence with “Gnawoe” in the background. Needing to print your boarding pass but a woman parked all of her luggage in front of the only free computer terminal, not noticing you trying to get her attention is infuriating, but it becomes almost comical after the third, exhaustive “excuse me” while “Dée Moo Wóor” accentuates just how tiring the process of asking people to get out of your way has become. (If you’re wondering, people not realizing that they’re in someone else’s way is a common theme here. It’s also NYC in a nutshell.) Even seeing a brown smudge on the ground and being unsure if it’s chocolate or poop seems more lively while listening to “On Verra Ça” (for the record, I’m 95% sure it was chocolate). Discovering Specialist In All Styles was a lot like the first time I used a neck pillow during my travels: I felt a bit goofy and unsure at first, but now I can’t imagine traveling without it.
Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie
My real first love was music that wasn’t made for the American market. The kind of stuff that is explosive on the other side of the world, and unheard of here in the States. One of my first introductions to the world of international music was Juan Luis Guerra, and I fell in love the moment I heard “A Pedir Su Mano.” Needless to say, when I heard Orchestra Baobab for the first time, it was similar to a re-awakening of my love for this caliber of international music. The kind that is so intricate, so well thought out, and so easy to love. I appreciate what they managed to do on a song like “Dée Moo Wóor” which plays with some reggae / ska styles and maxes it out with beautiful vocals that complement the piece so well. One doesn’t need to look up the lyrics to enjoy this music — it’s all fun and games, and this is a band that is diverse in nature as well as sound. Each song has its own personality and taste, and each one is bound to get you bobbing your head and trying to sing along, The Afro-Cuban-Caribbean fusion sound makes this entire record a special treat for someone who hasn’t be introduced to this style of music before. If they ever find themselves on this side of the world (more specifically in Philadelphia), you know I’ll be right there ready with a good drink and my dancing shoes on.
Catherine Dempsey (@coffincutieee)
Emo Kid Seeking Hardcore Band
Do you know how many times I’ve ever played an OYR album, and then immediately played it again all the way through? Once: this week for Specialist In All Styles. I usually hate putting away vinyl. There are miscellaneous piles, large and small, throughout the crib for various reasons. Some stay for an hour, some stay for ages. Either way, cleaning them up is not a priority for me. The experience of listening to SPIAS was so pleasant from start to finish that I re-played it immediately, and it actually made my most hated task enjoyable! Do you remember how you felt the first time you heard Sublime? That’s kind of how I felt a few bars into “Sutu Kun.” It’s a worldly mishmash of styles, instruments, and grooves that really makes me appreciate the adage that music is indeed the universal language. The overt Latin influence throughout the album certainly contributes to the chill-factor. With records like “Jiin Ma Jiin Ma,” “Ndongoy Daara,” and “El Son Te Llama,” this album feels like a vacation. Though that’s probably expected from a guy that listens to hardcore rap 99.9% of the time. For me, the standout record is “Dée Moo Wóor.” It’s the funkiest groove on the album, and the distinct vocals remind me of my favorite Nina Simone records. I can’t compliment this album enough, so I’ll stop right here.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
There’s a very specific type of joy I feel when I listen to Orchestra Baobab’s Specialist In All Styles. It’s a joy tied to certain vivid memories, like the salsa club my roommate and I used to go to on occasion when we lived together in Richmond, VA; and the Richmond Folk Festival, seeing and hearing music and dance originating from all corners of the world; and the midday hours of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival where most “world” music artists get slotted, walking around and occasionally joining the sweaty crowds moving their bodies despite the unrelenting Tennessee summer heat. Orchestra Baobab’s easy grooves beg to be heard and experienced live, in the outdoors or perhaps a laid-back club, dancing some summer night away. When I’m more often in the middle of some stock-still crowd at at a show for some indie band, the movement inherent in this music (and most African and Latin-American music as a whole) is endlessly enviable. Their songs don’t lack for instrumental skill nor musicality, but I prefer to let these musicians carry me away to that place where I let the sound wash over me and move my body in whatever way seems appropriate.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
In another life, I was a nerdy, unrealized teenager with aspirations on studying music in college alongside journalism. Not an excellent musician by any means, I still felt I was competent, receptive, and studious enough to warrant inclusion into a music program. After all, I had become comfortable at a variety of instruments, and not just in the musical sense where if you can play one brass instrument, you can play them all. I spent considerable time at saxophone, clarinet, baritone, French horn, and trombone, and probably would have done more if I could have ever gotten the flute positioning down, erased the fuzzy double reed sensation, or learned how not to be Caucasian with percussion. During an audition for one university’s music program, a professor’s retort to my list of instruments really struck me. “Jack of all trades it seems,” he smiled, as did I returning the compliment not knowing what was going to follow. “Master of none though, don’t forget. Perhaps you’d be better off if you had stuck to one.” This statement hit deep, not just because of its insulting nature towards a wide-eyed youth. It betrayed one of my favorite aspects of music: the exploration. As a kid, that’s what music was to me. I would pour over soundtracks to films because of the varying genres and styles. I would love symphonic class where we would jump from Sousa to Gustav to even more contemporaries like Brian Balmages. And I would stay up late with MTV and MuchMusic until their programming deemed it unnecessary to sequence music videos according to style. To this day, exploration is still what music is to me, and why a record like Specialist In All Styles resonates so strongly with me. To Orchestra Baobab, music knows no bounds, and how much you can explore depends on how much time and energy you want to spend learning about a style or genre, whether it be from around the corner or around the world. That’s why, when I feel a tinge of gypsy swing (“Bul Ma Miin“) or a Caribbean jaunt (“Gnawoe“), it doesn’t feel out of place for the Senegalese ensemble. Sure, that professor might view this in a similar fashion, but that’s where he would expose his true ignorance. For Orchestra Baobab, as talented, prolific, and ingenious as they are, is not trying to be a master of anything. They are just exploring music and offering up their findings in enjoyable songs that are as curious as they are remarkable.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Everything Is A Lot by Will Wood And The Tapeworms
Chosen By Catherine Dempsey