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Orchestra Baobob - Pirates Choice

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Artist: Orchestra Baobob

Album: Pirates Choice

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

Orchestra Baobab’s classic and legendary status amongst connoisseurs of West African music has been based on the band’s warm, relaxed blend of Cuban spice and local Senegalese rhythm and vocal inflections, cool nocturnal sax and fleet-fingered, filigreed African electric guitar.

Pirates Choice, released in Senegal on cassette 1982 (and appearing briefly on CD in Europe 1989), has long been sought after by those who appreciate the golden age of African pop. Now, thanks to Nonesuch Records, it’s back in an expanded version featuring extra tracks from the original sessions, good liner notes, a booklet full of photos from the band members' personal collections, and atmospheric snapshots capturing the loose and funky vibe of hip Africa in the era.

In the 1970s, Orchestra Baobab was a pioneering force in Senegalese -- and by extension, West African -- popular music. They took the electric guitars and cool posturings of youth culture and mixed them up with local songs and rhythms. But the secret ingredient in Baobab’s spicy stew was a deep affinity for classic Cuban music: Son, Rumba, Bolero. Add the soulful and plaintive vocals of Rudolphe Gomis and you’ve arrived in some sort of languid heaven of tropical music; smoky and seductive, with a bubbling polymetric percussive flow under all, a thick, warm, analog density of bass and guitar, captured with lovely tape saturation and a you-are-there immediacy.

Other vocalists, including Mapenda Seck, added a more direct Sahelian feel to some tracks, singing in Wolof. These experiments in fusion were incredibly influential in Senegal; they helped pave the way for a young Youssou N’Dour and his Etoile de Dakar, whose own mix of Wolof Tradition, Cuban roots, and personal magnetism brought Senegalese music to the world’s attention.

Many of the recordings made by local bands for local consumption in Africa during the 60s, 70s, and early 80s are treasures: They capture an incredibly fecund and creative musical era, before glitzy and shallow world-pop production values steamrollered and sanitized a rich variety of musical expression. Pirates Choice deserves its legendary status because it shows all the watermarks of the best music of the era. Seemingly simple ingredients are blended to a satisfying complexity; the result is served up with passion and integrity.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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