REVIEW: Orchestra Baobab – Pirates Choice
Content on Static + Distance has been sparse lately and for that, I apologize. I’ve been in a bit of a rut when it comes to writing. It isn’t that I’m not exploring new music still, but rather I’m having trouble finding the motivation to sit down and pick it apart. Yet, I can’t bring myself to say goodbye to S+D completely, so I thought about what has been consuming most of my listening time as of late. Well, that’s easy. It’s Orchestra Baobab’s Pirates Choice. An album from a group of Senegalese musicians that seamlessly blend together the sounds of West Africa and Cuba. Pirates Choice, originally released in 1982, received renewed interest in 2001 when it was reissued on CD (the 2 LP set came out earlier this year). The original version consisted of only 6 songs, yet the reissue takes some liberties with the arrangement of the tracks and doubles that number by incorporating songs from a cassette that was recorded that same year. Since there are some great tracks on the reissue I’m going to review that version and to be honest, this isn’t going to be a review as much as me selecting a few standout tracks. Really, I suggest getting a hold of this album somehow and listening to the entirety of it. So, onto the write-up. I should begin by stating that my interest in Afro-Cuban music is recent. Most of my knowledge comes from a handful of artists, but I’m going to use the reference points I do have (i.e. western music) and attempt to tackle this masterpiece. I don’t think you’ll need much selling on its merits once you begin listening to it.
Leading off the album is “Utrus Horas.” Well, leading off the reissue of Pirates Choice. It’s the third track on the original release. I think it’s a better fit kicking off the album, showcasing the combination of Cuban and Senegalese influences and giving the listener an idea of what Pirates Choice is all about. Halfway through the rest of the band seems to drop out and the underwater guitars (I’m not sure how else to describe that sound) rise to the top of the mix. The sax on this track is a great addition too. While featured on most of the songs, it really shines through on this one.
The production is incredibly unique, but perhaps not intentionally so. It was recorded with a fraction of the budget that most American and European bands were working with and on much older equipment. Still, it’s a sound I can appreciate. On “Ledi Ndieme M’Bodj,” perhaps my favorite track off Pirates Choice, that production is evident. The guitars seem to float above the rest of the band. The sound meanders along while the percussion holds the track together. There’s a distinct guitar tone that I’ve heard all across West African music from this era. Playful, but melancholy; you’ll find it all across the album.
The last one I want to highlight is “Werente Serigne.” The urgency here isn’t present on most of the tracks. You can almost imagine these guys trying to catch their breath as they desperately attempt to keep up with one another. By time we’re 4 minutes in, things seem to be ready to unravel, but the band never fails to hold it together. I really can’t recommend this album strongly enough. Hearing these tracks on their own gives you a taste of what makes Pirates Choice special, but it takes hearing it entirely to truly appreciate it.
NOTE: For a far more nuanced, informed and complete review (with some more history of the band), check out in Caspar Llewellyn Smith’s review in The Guardian.