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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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The return of Orchestra Baobab
The group is West Africa's Buena Vista Social Club
The group is on a roll.
The group is on a roll.

This coolish fledgling summer should start to sizzle Sunday night when the Orchestra Baobab, straight from Dakar, Senegal, busts loose at the Barrymore Theatre - the warmup concert for the east side's annual Fete de Marquette.

The Baobab's getting lots of press for being the Buena Vista Social Club of West Africa. As with the BVSC, this band's revival is the work of British world-music mogul Nick Gold, of World Circuit Records. But the common threads run much deeper than that.

The group was the house orchestra for Dakar's swanky Baobab Club in the '70s. Rhythm guitarist Lafti Benjeloun was there. "I joined just a few months after the nightclub opened. I played on the orchestra's first recording in '71. The baobab tree is a symbol of Senegal, along with the lion."

1970s Nigeria was bursting with Fela Kuti's brilliantly funky, hard-driving Afrobeat, but in Senegal, Cuban son was the rage. Cuban musicians regularly toured West Africa, bolstering Castro's attempts to spread liberation politics there. The sound of son, several generations removed from Africa and packing the double historical punch of Spanish guitars and U.S. jazz, struck a special chord in Senegal's port cities, where Cuban music flowed along with goods and slaves throughout three centuries of transatlantic colonial trade.

Orchestra Baobab became famous for its pan-African, rolling brand of Cuban son, tempered with whispered tumbao. Its montunos, carried on guitar instead of piano, are gentle cousins of their Cuban relatives.

That's how it sounds to me, but Benjeloun's quick to put his African perspective on my questions about Cuban son. "We influenced Cuba, it's not the other way around. What we play is something like Cuban music, that's all. In both cases African rhythms are mixed with classical harmonies played on non-African instruments like guitar and horns. Of course, Cuban musicians brought some of their songs to Senegal. But when they went home they took our songs, too."

The relentless flow of stylistic change washed away the Cuban craze. By the late '70s, mbalax - the hard-edged, sabar-drum-driven, indigenous African beat made internationally famous by Youssou N'Dour - was the number-one sound in Senegal. By the mid-'80s the Orchestra Baobab, like Havana's pre-revolution soneros, had faded. Son was all but forgotten in Dakar when Gold rereleased some of Baobab's old albums and started producing new ones. In 2002, Gold recorded Specialists in All Styles, introducing the world to an updated Orchestra Baobab. This year's Made in Dakar continues the trend. There's mbalax in the mix, along with Ghanaian high life, Western-influenced Afropop guitar licks, even a smidge of country-western twang - and happily, some good old-fashioned pan-African son.

The orchestra's on a roll. "We tour a lot," Benjeloun says. "We were in Australia, New Zealand and Eastern Europe before we started this U.S. tour. After that we're going back to Europe before we go home. And when we're back in Senegal we play clubs in Dakar, like the old days. I'm telling you, we're lucky people."

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