WOMAD 2006 notes

Orchestra Baobab

If Buena Vista Social Club are the grandparents of today’s Afro-Cuban music, then Orchestra Baobab, from Senegal, are the unwed uncles who skip most family reunions. They are a potent reminder of the long-standing musical dialogue between Africa and the Americas and the fact that neither continent can hope to claim sole ownership of the many resulting genres.

Having been an unabashed fan of Orchestra Baobab for years, I was excited to finally be able to see them live at WOMAD—the three-day festival of world music, arts and dance that takes place annually in Adelaide’s Botanic Park. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, Baobab played in the shady natural amphitheatre of Stage 6, nestled between pine trees and a creek bed. It was an informal performance with a few conversational franglais interludes of questions and answers. A small crowd, maybe a hundred strong, sat on the grass and let the warm guitars, horns and voices transfix their ears.

The group’s origins lie as much in politics as in music. In the mid-twentieth century, African nations, like Senegal, were slowly beginning to unshackle themselves from the dependencies of colonialism. In broadening its cultural, economic and diplomatic horizons beyond the old world of Europe, Senegal looked towards other postcolonial states like Cuba. Latin music had already seeped into Senegal via the port city of Dakar and this new, wider interchange with Cuba only strengthened this.

In 1970, a group of Senegalese Government ministers decided to establish a swanky club where they could hobnob with the best of society. The result was the Baobab Club, fitted out so that its walls and ceilings would resemble the eponymous tree. The baobab, known for its longevity and the shade of its branches, also lent its name to the resident band, which was sneakily handpicked from the bands of rival clubs. Thus it was that a new group emerged, playing a cool mix of pachanga, salsa and cha cha cha.

Come the mid-70s and Orchestra Baobab were being lauded as the best band in Senegal.   The group, emanating from every corner of the country, represented the ethnic and cultural diversity of Senegal. This distinctive mix set them apart and their first recordings were huge local hits. Their time in the spotlight of African music lasted a relatively long time, but by 1987 the group had broken up completely due to the rise of the fresh, fast-paced dance music of mbalax —most typically associated with Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal. In total antithesis to the soothing, earthy grooves of Baobab, mbalax is high-tempo, electrifying pop.

Youssou N’Dour soon garnered worldwide attention with various significant “cross-over” pop albums and songs, such as 7 Seconds with Neneh Cherry. The smooth, unadorned and unassuming style of Baobab was less suited to the world music market and, in the West, disappeared into the stately collections of aficionados and geeks. Not until 2001 did one of Baobab’s albums receive a well-deserved reissue. Ironically, it was partly thanks to the enormous success of N’Dour that record execs were looking at the music of Senegal.

The reissue of Pirate’s Choice arrived and made an instant impression, with reviewers scrambling over each other to hail the group’s greatness. In the last couple of years, the reformed band has been touring across Europe, Asia and North America, playing tracks that it first penned decades ago as well as new compositions.

In concert, the group have a relaxed manner, an affable relationship with the audience and a teasing confidence that bespeak their long time together and on the road. Pirate’s Choice was my introduction to the music of Orchestra Baobab and, at Womadelaide, the group pleased the crowd with faithful renditions of the best songs from that double album. For the record, Baobab created over twenty albums in their 70s and 80s heyday, with the 1982 Pirate’s Choice being the one most familiar to Western audiences and an excellent starting point. Since its reformation, the group has released the new Specialist in All Styles . Also look out for the excellent Bamba next time you’re at a record store and feel like getting some sweet soulful tunes from these Senegalese masters.


Jalsa Creole

Is there not something guiltily appealing about taking a trip on a tropical cruise? But if, like me, you have neither the money for it nor the patience to play canasta with retired stockbrokers and their clawing poodles, then seeing Jalsa Creole might be as close as you come. A Sydney-based group, they and their music hail from the island nation of Mauritius. It’s up-beat, poppy, highlife-cum-salsa and overtly optimistic. Those specks in the Indian Ocean clearly foster some good times … and some lusciously nubile dancers with two-piece dance outfits in Power Ranger colours, who gyrate their hips like they’re beating eggs with them. The program notes informed us that traditional instruments (including the triangle ) were used, but there was definitely some sleazy synthesised brass sounds in there. Indeed, the overall effect could have been sheer cheese, and maybe for some it was. But to me the band were into it enough to keep me from casting judgement, or perhaps I was simply swayed by the dancing hips.



For the last seven years, Womadelaide has been graced by the kinetic simplicity of British artist Angus Watt’s flags. Acting as colourful landmarks, colonnades and artificial forests, the refined elegance of the flags has been one of the most notable elements of the “site-art” that is a vital contributor to the atmosphere of the festival. I can still remember lying underneath and looking up at a canopy of fluttering silk as the Grigoryan brothers plucked and fretted their way through some remarkable guitar duets two years ago. And as the sun sets, the flags seem to take on all the energy of the day and blast it into coloured mosaics. It’s not as though a festival like Womadelaide really needs any extra world-friendly worthiness, but Watt is proud to note that the flags are produced using only wind and solar power at his new home in the mountains of Spain. Whether that makes them any better to look at is heatedly contested, but I have a feeling that whoever had to deliver the fabric to him probably used some petrol along the way. Whatever. If you noticed some great big flags at the Alexandra Gardens for Festival Melbourne, then you too have been witness to Watt’s work.


Craig Walsh

Want to know how to freak people out? Well, at a grass-friendly festival like Womadelaide, paranoiacs are easy to come by and easy to impress. But there really is something quite hilariously surprising about seeing a tree turn into a face that speaks. Brisbane-based artist Craig Walsh creates projections and soundtracks that have spooked many a tired-out festival goer as they wander out of the Botanic Park after a day of music and sunshine. For more on how a tree can become a face, click here.