(World Circuit/Nonesuch, CD)
Orchestra Baobab is one of world music's most celebrated groups; its Cuban-tinged, African-rooted tunes have delighted audiences since the '70s. Named after a Senegal club where they were once the house band, the group's popularity has since spread far beyond its native land.
Their latest release, Specialist in All Styles, finds the 11-piece act in top form. The band's infectious vocal melodies, seductive guitar licks and hypnotic percussion combine West African tradition with spicy Latin flourishes.
Cuban music has been heard on African airwaves since the '40s, with a great deal of the music brought to Senegal by sailors and merchant marines. Over subsequent decades, the two traditions became inextricably linked. Orchestra Baobab's irresistibly vibrant sound is the result of this cultural cross-pollination.
Featuring six singers, two horn players, two guitarists and a fully loaded rhythm section, Orchestra Baobab are a musical juggernaut. Special guests include Buena Vista Social Club alum Ibrahim Ferrer and African superstar Youssou N'Dour, who also helped produce. With all the talent here, it's no wonder that Specialist is one of the finest discs you're likely to come across in the world-music bin.
The CD kicks off with the ska-flavored "Bul Ma Miin," which gallops and sways playfully. According to the liner notes, the tune's lyrics are said to call for respect and open communication between generations. I'll have to take their word for it. The language barrier is no hindrance to enjoying Barthelemy Attisso's nimble guitar work, though. One of the best players on any continent, his solo twists and dips, while Issa Cissokho punctuates the groove with rich sax lines.
"On Verra Ca" is another highlight; the cut's loping tempo is driven by hypnotic congas and call-and-response vocals. Here, the band's African heritage is brought to the fore. Attisso offers another amazing six-string soliloquy, with spidery licks and expert pacing.
Ferrer is characteristically soulful on "Hommage A Tonton Ferrer," which I assume is named in tribute to the singer. A terrific marriage of Cuban crooning and African rhythms, Ferrer's vocals brilliantly fit the tune's dark tone and slippery pulse.
Fans of Orchestra Baobab probably won't need much convincing, but those who want to know what the fuss is all about should experience Specialist's exotic charms. This is one band that's worth every bit of acclaim they get. Catch them live at the Higher Ground Ballroom on Tuesday, March 22.