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Senegal band takes world stage

January 12, 2003|Tom Schnabel

The lyrics: "Showing affection does not equate with being weak." "The dragon can break open four cheese makers with his power alone."

The album: "Specialist in All Styles."

The artists: Orchestra Baobab, a legendary West African group that got its name from the chic and popular nightclub in Dakar, Senegal, where it was the house band.

The vibe: Dakar meets Buena Vista Social Club.

Where it's charting: Making waves in West Africa, France, England and the U.S.

The back story: Famed in the '70s and '80s for a sound that mixed West African folk music with Cuban and R&B influences, the band hadn't recorded a new album in almost two decades, though its first release was called "Pirate's Choice" because it was the most pirated record in Senegal. A worldwide cult following kept the music alive, and when the group re-formed last year after a 17-year break, it was as though it had never left the top of the Senegalese charts.

The cover of "Specialist in All Styles" hints at its mix. The art depicts placards popular on African barbershop walls, advertising the latest and coolest tonsorial styles, along with some, like one called the Boeing 707, that are a little dated. With tunes like "Ndogoy Daara," a plea against corruption in Senegal's Koranic schools, it's got thematic currency. And with guest stars like Buena Vista's Ibrahim Ferrer, it's kept its fusion impulses intact. Yes, Senegalese radio is full of Celine Dion and Linkin Park. But with its lazy late-night groove, Orchestra Baobab is more than holding its own.

-- Tom Schnabel

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