SENEGAL: Pirates Choice - Orchestra Baobab
The subjective nature of music enjoyment is highlighted in this afro-jazz masterpiece
It is no exaggeration to say that Orchestra Baobab are icons of worldwide music. Established in 1970 as the house band of the Dakar-based Baobab Club, the band’s mix of Senegalese Wolof music, jazz, and Cuban son made them superstars all over Africa, and they recorded 20 albums in their initial 17-year existence. Disbanding in 1987 due to the mbalax genre increasing sharply in popularity, in no small part due to irresistible rise of the supremely talented Youssou N’Dour, their music was since discovered by British global music label World Circuit, which revived enough interest for the band to reform and record new material, as well as firmly cement their deserved place in the pantheon of music greats. Pirates Choice, released in 1989, is one such reissue by World Circuit, and it is compilation of their best work from their 1982 sessions, and standing at a mammoth length of 94 minutes there’s plenty of songs here that are fascinating and interesting on a musical level. But here’s where I struggle with the album. While it is undoubtedly of high quality, with many excellent songs, musicianship that is astonishing, and features a level of musical invention that means it is rightly acclaimed for what it is, I am ultimately left slightly cold by the album. My fellow traveller on this album adventure, Danny, thinks I am mad for saying this and that it should be featured as an album of the week and urged me to relisten to the album again before I came to write the review. Which I did. And I came to the same conclusion. I think it is good, but it just doesn’t reach me on that emotional level that is necessary for me to love it, and nor is it quite consistent enough for it to be spectacular on a technical level alone.
“When it’s good, it’s very very good, and you get a wonderful sense of sitting in a club listening to some musicians at the top of their game playing their best material.”
In my view, Pirates Choice is a masterpiece that I don’t love. To briefly refer to the world of cinema, I’d liken it to the film Apocalypse Now, an undoubted masterpiece of the war film genre and technical achievement like few films achieve, and yet, I felt absolutely no emotional engagement with it when I watched it and felt it was slightly too long. I’m sure some film fans reading that will vehemently disagree, but that’s simply my view. And that’s similar to how I view this album by Orchestra Baobab. It is objectively excellent, but criticism and opinion don’t live in the world of objectivity, and my subjective view happens to be that it’s just too long for its own good, with few truly memorable songs. In some ways, that’s an unfair criticism of Pirates Choice as it is a compilation made after the fact, as opposed to an album lovingly compiled by its creators. While that may be the case, it is still an artistic piece all of its own which stands on its own right.
However, taking my personal feelings on aspects of the album to one side, one cannot deny the skill of the musicians, and some of the songs are really fantastic. La Rebellion is one track where you can really hear that Cuban influence powering through, and Werente Serigne features some truly fantastic vocals from lead singer Balla Sidibé. Ray M’Bele features an excellent guitar solo in the style of soukous music and set to a Latin beat. When it’s good, it’s very very good, and you get a wonderful sense of sitting in a club listening to some musicians at the top of their game playing their best material. It is also where the length of the album comes into its own, as it makes it ideal passive listening. You can dip in and out of their music even in the time it takes to listen to one song, which makes sense given their origins as a house band, where people would have been dipping in and out of conversations and drinks to listen to the talent on offer. I mean this as no criticism, however. The passive listen is just as important as the active listen, and it passes on both methods, as the instrumentation and vocals are often excellent. Where for me it falls short slightly is that I found there weren’t any songs I found myself repeatedly going back to again and again, and I never found myself falling head over heels in love with it like so many others have. That’s OK, I suppose. Orchestra Baobab are unquestionably key players in the history and development of Senegalese music and African music more generally, and I respect that and enjoy their music. I just don’t love it.