So the lighting was shit, the sound was disgracefully ropey for an allegedly “quality” venue – particularly since this was the third of three nights – and the floor was crowded with people of record-breaking height who all felt a desperate need to stand right in front of the stage thus blocking the view of your illicit-photo-taking correspondent. And the boys (most of whom are undoubtedly grandfathers) were taking it easy.
I had the most fantastic time. (Fan-tastic. Fan-tastic.)
It is difficult to overstate how much I love this band. The wonderful, sexy, mellow, sinuous, smouldering, life-affirming sound. Even the song Coumba, the lyrics of which are in French and I can therefore understand and are about the end of a relationship (written, apparently, on the day band member Rudi Gomis went to court to get a divorce from his first wife, Coumba) sounds jaunty.
Here’s my first blog reference to them back in February 2003:
Top of the spike is every track I have by Orchestra Baobab. They provide quite simply music to stay sane to. I don’t know, and don’t care what their tracks are about (my Wolof is limited to “hello how are you” and “yes”). They could be about Armageddon. But they help keep me from meltdown… Stunning. Sexy. Soulful. Syncopated. Smoochy. Sanity.
And here they are again in March 2005 when I saw them play in Dakar:
And my love for Orchestra Baobab knows no bounds. They, on my iPod, brought me through the deepest of darkness and I shall never forget how much I owe their music. I wept while they were on stage. Tears of relief and joy.
I didn’t cry this time, but I closed my eyes and went back to that time, of being unable to get out of bed even to take my pills only a few feet away on the mantelpiece. A time of utter desolation. Curled into a tight foetus, clutching my iPod under the pillow with this music in my ears the only sign I might still be alive.
I could see again my trainers as I walked doggedly, eyes on the ground, through the rain and mud of the winter of 2002/3 to the therapist two, three times a week, iPod clutched in a pocket, with the rhythm propelling me forward one step at a time.
And I felt profoundly grateful and happy to be there, at that moment, in that crowd, with my friends, listening to this same music and to be in such a different place. My life may be somewhat financially diminished but it is so much richer in so many fundamental respects and I feel more authentic (I can’t think of an adequate word so that will have to do) than at any other time.
I’m such a fan I can actually sing along to many of the tracks even though I speak none of the various languages (apart from a little French) in which they are sung. And I did so without the slightest hint of embarrassment. After all, nobody in the overwhelmingly white, middle-aged, middle class audience was likely to pick me up on my pronunciation. But there were a few numbers I didn’t recognise and that’s because they have a new album out – Made in Dakar.
I reread the extraordinary biography of the band before writing this, and it struck me that it’s possible that one of the reasons it fell from favour was its ethnic diversity and, more particularly, the high proportion of members from Casamance, the would-be breakaway region in the south of Senegal.
I hope that their new residence in a Dakar club means such divisions are less bitter than formerly.
So the performance. Well, one of my friends thought their approach was somewhat lackadaisical. I prefer the term “laid back”. These guys are not young. They are not hungry. In fact most are rather cherubically rotund and of a placid appearance, particularly bassist Charlie Ndiaye (above) who stayed at the back of the stage with his eyes barely open throughout, bass resting on the swell of his belly. The notable exception is ectomorphic tenor sax player, Issa Cissoko (pictured above the bassist), who is tall, whippet-skinny, deeply lined and a vigourous seeker of attention. Lead guitarist Barthélemy Attisso (above the sax player) leant over his instrument like a rather dour accountant (he was in fact a lawyer) but he’s still one hell of a player. Perhaps his demeanour is due to the heavy responsibility of the title “chef d’orchestre”.
It seemed to me that there was much good-natured camaraderie and a fair amount of clowning around poking fun at their own age and inability to dance like teenagers. It was fascinating how versatile many of them are, slipping seamlessly between various instruments and vocalist duties. And they are, of course, professional musical performers. It’s what they do, night after night, year after year, mostly in the same place, occasionally on tour. It’s a different life to the recording artists of Europe whose money comes from royalties rather than bums on seats or bellies at the bar. So there’s nothing dangerous or edgy about their performance. But the reverse has its merits – deep familiarity, confidence, relaxation, polish. Little urgency, much joy. All this and some new material too!