Orchestra Baobab celebrates life and embraces change on a joyful tribute to a late lead singer.
Orchestra Baobab has had ups and downs in the last 47 years -- breakups, reunions, deaths of members as crucial as Ndiouga Dieng, the lead vocalist who passed away in 2016 and to whom its newest album is dedicated -- and yet, there is joy in this band. There always has been, at high moments as well as low, and nothing about that has changed for Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, a celebration of a cherished singer and a long-lived group.
The foundation of the album is the orchestra’s well-honed Afro-Cuban sounds, passionate and polished, and the international vibes don’t end there. West African elements are strong parts of the mix, Abdoulaye Cissoko’s kora adding a sweetness and lightness to jubilant brass, electric guitar singing out simple melodies. Latin, Caribbean, and African popular music all converge in the sunshine, warm and inviting. The songs are not fast ones, staying in a midtempo range, but each one carries a steady beat, leading gentle, swaying dances. It’s hypnotic, utterly relaxing, and a reminder that slowing down doesn’t have to mean giving up.
And they have slowed down, a little. There is no doubt that the group has matured since its days lighting up hot Dakar nights playing at home base Club Baobab (and even since its most recent album a mere decade ago), and now carries with it an energy more suited to a tropical weekend on the Atlantic than a dancefloor. The tempo, the instrumentation, that mellow kora, everything about Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng shows the group’s age with pride and love. There’s nothing wrong with these changes, but it’s good to be prepared for them; fans of that smoky 1970s Senegalese dance rock sound may find themselves in air a little fresher than anticipated here in the sunny present.
Some of the songs blend together, like a row of watercolor splatters, but a few are brighter than the rest. Melancholy "Natalia" has one of the strongest rhythms of the bunch, a strong Afro-Cuban melody, and a soaring saxophone solo. "Magnokouto" has a guitar line that sounds like high noon glinting off the ocean, and the kora becomes brilliant and sharp. Both instruments sparkle against soft vocal harmonies and horns. Single "Fayinkounko" glides on the strength of its dreamy melody, and the closing track "Alekouma" is all twinkling strings, a lullaby to guide what is doubtless an already calm audience into a serene sleep.
It’s always a sad circumstance, the death of a lead vocalist; Ndiouga Dieng had been in Orchestra Baobab since the 1970s, playing an essential role. This tribute album honors him well, and it also honors the band as a whole. On a purely technical level, the group is solid, the styles they blend are astonishing in their diversity. Emotionally, it’s impossible not to feel the heart in every song as Orchestra Baobab thanks Dieng for his legacy. This album is a promise to stay strong as a group, to keep this music alive. In a beautiful show of family solidarity, Dieng’s son Alpha will be taking up the role of singing many of his father’s signature songs with the group. It’s another change, but if there’s one thing Orchestra Baobab proves on Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng, it’s that they can handle change. It might even make them immortal.