Afro-popped Collars and the Highlife: Orchestra Baobab at River to River

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I don’t remember the last time I saw dudes in Dashikis dancing alongside briefcase-wielding Wall Street types, but if the U.S. is finally moving towards some kind of cultural/racial reconciliation, then Wednesday’s free show in Rockefeller Park courtesy of Senagalese nonet [Orchestra Baobab] might have marked a decisive tick on the timeline. Let’s just say the future will be awesome, and will feature tons of bad dancing. Also no booze, per park regulations. A coincidence?

The only thing louder than Orchestra Baobab’s tenor player is the band’s collection of polyester shirts, and the only thing bigger than their Heart of Darkness-deep poly-grooves is their bass player. For a performance conducted entirely in French, Spanish and Wolof, these guys put personality on a pedestal to rival even their thorniest of conga breakdowns. When you’re backed up by a cast of musicians who switch instruments (sax, to congas, to kit, to vocals) as casually as most of us change socks, a bit of grinning showmanship, razor-honed after three decades of touring, doesn’t seem so much cocky as irrepressible. After a few minutes, people were walking up to the risers and handing the band cash.

With a back catalog that extends so far into the past, it’s conceivable that the Orchestra could have jammed for a couple of days without breaking. As it went down, we got two hours of sticky, infinitely-expandable Afro-Cuban Highlife grooves, which, I felt, was plenty. OB isn’t so much into songs as it is obsessed with the rhythmic and melodic iterations of a constant sound. Occasionally, someone would drop a bomb on the timbale or the guitarist would beam out a luxurious, skin-smooth solo, but despite the ample virtuoso variations, this stuff is all about moving your legs around like an idiot and singing along to creamy harmonies in languages you don’t know. Exuberant incomprehension is the new globalism. Even the kids, a pile of whom began accumulating at the base of the stage early into the performance, totally get it.

After the encore, bandleader introduced his entourage to the politely roaring, pit-stained crowd. “This,” he said pointing to the guy on his right, “is my son.” Everyone cheered. Crossing the stage to the congas, he put his arm around another player. “This one…he’s my son, too!” he said. It was a bit of a tease, since we all felt adopted at this point.

[Photo by famillediaoune via Flickr]

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