The setting of this beautiful decadent theatre is decorated with a lush dark velvet red throughout, modern, sleek lights combined with traditional glimmers from fancy chandeliers. The aesthetic of the venue truly shines a romantic hew on the musical exchange ahead. Orchestra Baobab themselves, as any listener of African or Cuban music will know, are mavericks of performance which is so deeply ingrained in Afro-Cuban music, spanning back to the 1960’s. Their stamp on the world music scene as a whole, but in particular of an afro-cuban genre, is undeniably permanent and fundamental to the popularity of the genre and/or related genres.
Within the band we have strong influences from the Western African traditional music of the Kora which traditionally is only learnt as a hereditary instrument, taught from father to son, and passed down as an aural historical account within the family. Orchestra Baobab have a West African griot (oral historian of music) in the band playing the Kora. As well as this, a percussive section of the ensemble use the traditional Cuban rhythm of Son throughout much of their repertoire. Son itself is embedded eternally within the foundations of Cuban music, with its roots deep within the Afro-centric influences on Cuba dating back in the early 1900s from the afro movements of the Atlantic slave trade. For these reasons, it seems to me that seeing Orchestra Baobab is an opportunity to see a stamp in history; to bear witness to the foundations of much consequential music. Having recently played at the prestigious world music festival WOMAD 2017, Orchestra Baobab have been on a world-wide tour and are playing this evening in Camden’s luxury Koko, a venue which is fully up to the challenge of hosting our legendary guests.
So the evening begins: the stage is filled literally with ten band members for the first piece and likewise the atmosphere is immediately filled to the brim as they embark on playing a taster of their tunes. The group were all wearing traditional cloths of varying colours: Ndiouga Dieng (lead vocals) took to the centre stage with a mini drum set up of two floor drums and a high hat. He wore a contrasting pitch black hat with his pure white tunic; meanwhile the Kora player wore beige, the lead guitar wore a light blue tunic with a white hat, and so on….until we reach the saxophonist who broke away from the tradition and wore an elaborately rainbow-esc suit, complete with a purple velvet jacket and a larger than life, oversized red top hat. A most fitting of outfits for the theatrics of our setting. The music kicked off an immediate appreciation throughout the crowd who began to dance and sway to the irresistibly movable music.
The sound was impeccable. With each instrument tuned perfectly, with the fullest richest texture coming through the sound system, their sound technician must be incredibly familiar with very minute personal details to achieve such a full crisp sound. Each tonality of each instrument strung warmth into the audience. Of course needless to say, what would a workman be without his tools; each musician, in their own right are mavericks with their instruments. Not one member of the ten musicians on stage shied away from epic solos and playful improvised exchanges in the form of call and response between one another. Such as a joust occurs between electric guitar and saxophone as they repeat phrases to each other, or between congas and a full drum kit, or vocals and saxophone. On top if this, we see the drummers within themselves swapping kits for different songs, whilst the lead guitar might crank it up for “shredding” guitar solos to be followed by a lively jousting with the Kora. The Kora itself is a 21 stringed West African harp, and can make the most beautiful sounds, and also keep upbeat dancing rhythms. At times the two saxophonists would play immensely groovy licks in perfect sync with one another, to the amazement of the crowd who were lavished with every musical flourish. The evening had a friendly atmosphere as everyone danced, feeling almost transported to the times when Orchestra Baobab were quite literally the ‘orchestra’ of club Baobab, previously famously known as the ‘Star Club’ of Senegal.
On a personal level, I perhaps had one of my most favourite evenings watching Orchestra Baobab in Koko. On an otherwise weary Monday evening, they brought their eclectic fusion of warm afro-cuban rhythms to breathe an Africa wind into our hearts and our dancing hips. Couples everywhere were dancing the rumba, and people of all ages, be it long term fans from the original 60’s line-up of Orchestra Baobab, or perhaps youngsters who may have been swept up in the vinyl revolution that so helped this band reunite in 2011 and continue to play their music to a new larger demographic. Everyone was dancing smiling, and laughing, it seems the energy of the evening was to be as happy as possible, whilst experiencing impeccable music, played to perfection.