Written by Lucy Duran, August 2020
Orchestra Baobab, one of Africa’s most enduring and popular bands, are reeling from the loss of one their founder members. The singer and timbales player Balla Sidibé, whose resonant, expressive voice was one of the most emblematic features of this veteran orchestra passed away in Dakar, Senegal on July 29, aged 78. Only the day before, Balla had been on fine form, rehearsing new material with the band, in preparation for their 50th anniversary. (Plans for this event have been postponed because of COVID to 2021, when Baobab will begin touring the anniversary concerts hopefully in February or March).
Balla wrote or arranged some of Baobab’s biggest hits, including On Verra Ça, Sutukum, and most recently Fayinkunko, pieces drawn from the Mandinka griot traditions of his native Casamance in southern Senegal. But he was much more than just a lead singer. His pure tenor vocals and deep groove on timbales were the glue that held together Baobab’s prodigiously talented musicians, who came from diverse cultural backgrounds in Senegal and beyond.
“Balla was the living memory of the orchestra” says Dudu Sarr, the band’s new agent, who has a lifelong background in Senegalese music. The well-known saying, originally cited by Malian novelist Hampate Ba, comes to mind: every time an old man dies, it’s a library that has burnt down. What made Balla so special? I asked Dudu, who said “It was his gentle character, his lively anecdotes, his roots in Casamance, his knowledge of the diverse cultural traditions of that region. That music was always my favourite”.
I spoke to Baobab’s saxophonist Thierno Koité, who was in a state of shock. “We were very close” he told me. “I kept suggesting to him that maybe he should take a break, get some rest. But no — he was always the first to arrive at the rehearsals and the last to go.” There was nothing that pointed to Balla’s ripe old age. His memory was as sharp as a razor blade. “He remembered every single detail of the band’s history: where they played, when and what, over more than 50 years — it was like he had a computer in his head!”
“Senegalese music has become very mono-cultural”, Thierno added. “It’s all in the Wolof language, with a Wolof sound. But we’re a country of great diversity, with many languages and different kinds of music especially in the Casamance region, where Balla was from. Balla knew those traditions well… He wasn’t a griot, but he knew the griot songs of his native Mandinka people as well as any griot. That is what gives Baobab its unique flavour.”
“He was the regulator of the orchestra” says Thierno. “His view was that we were a family — yes, we would always argue about something, but we had to find a way of agreeing. So he would call a meeting. One by one, the different members of the band would express their opinions. Balla would listen attentively, but not say a word — till everyone had spoken. Then he would address each and every one individually, thoughtfully, remembering everything they had said, responding to their concerns with consideration. That was how he avoided conflict in the band”.
Thierno joined Baobab back in 1978, at the height of its first wave of popularity, and will now take over from Balla in the role of director. “Balla was Baobab”, Thierno commented with deep sadness. “In both senses of the word. The band and the tree. The baobab tree lives for hundreds of years. It’s the symbol of the African savannah”.
Baobab forests are found across the Senegalese savannah. Giant majestic old gnarled trees; little baby ones — they look strangely as if they are upside down, with the trunk in the soil and the roots in the air. Baobab trees are democratic. They spread themselves out evenly, with symmetry, to share the scarce water of the land. A good metaphor for Balla Sidibé. The bright savannah of Casamance with its rivers and tall yellow grasses, the landscape of Balla’s childhood, are perfectly reflected in his voice. His vision of the band was communal, driven by genuine love of the music, and not by ego.
On stage, Balla was understated in his performance style. Flashy and showy moves were not his thing. Until very recently, he stood at the back of the band. But he bewitched audiences with his effortless timbales playing, driving the music with absolute groove, his voice ringing out with a special clarity and beauty. No other singer sounded like Balla Sidibé. His voice was natural and unforced, he was versatile in what he could do, and he was a perfectionist.
The young talented singer Cheikh Ibra Fam, one of the new recruits to Orchestra Baobab, regarded “uncle” Balla as his mentor. Cheikh is currently recording his own album, on which Balla sings, in fact, they were together in the studio the day before Balla died. “Balla liked real music. He was a kind person, but he didn’t tolerate lack of professionalism. He could be quite critical of me”, Cheikh told me. Cheikh studied piano and solfege for six years in a conservatoire in Milan, but performing with Balla was something else. “He’d criticise me for holding the microphone when I sang… but others would do just that and he didn’t object. He would tap me with his timbal drumstick whenever he thought I was doing something wrong. This could be quite unnerving. But on the very last day of his life, he paid a warm, touching tribute to me. I will always treasure that.”
At the time that Orchestra Baobab first got together in 1970, most Senegalese bands modelled their style on Afrocuban songs, using Cuban rhythms and instrumentation, even singing lyrics in Spanish. The Latin tinge was all the rage in Senegal. But Baobab created their own unique approach to their sound, which went far beyond mere imitation. They were always in perfect tune — not the case with many other bands of the time — their arrangements tightly rehearsed and deliciously creative. Wolof melodies were only one of the regional styles that Baobab drew upon. More important for them were the rolling harmonies and intensely melodic drumming traditions of Casamance (in southern Senegal), and this was in no small measure thanks to Balla Sidibé. Their mellow groove has stood the test of time, and has given them cult status since their revival in 2001, making them a favourite with audiences around the world.
Balla’s story is a microcosm of Senegal’s history starting in the colonial era, into independence and the 21st century.
Balla was born on May 19, 1942 in Sinbandi Balante, a small town on the south side of the Casamance river in Sedhiou province, southern Senegal, close to the border with Guinea Bissau. Here the river is placid, wide and silvery, lined with mangrove trees, and the pace of life is slow. Like all villages in the region, the population is of mixed ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds: Mandinka, Manjak, Balanta, Jola, Bainuk; animist, Christian, Muslim, all living side by side and sharing aspects of each other’s cultures. This is a highly musical part of the country, with diverse instruments and styles. Music marks all life cycle events from birth to funerals. Women form large choruses in a semicircle and sing in multi-parts, clapping hands with interlocking rhythms, taking turns to dance. This was the background to Balla’s passion for music. But there was more to it than that.
I had the good fortune of passing through Sinbandi in 2018 while visiting friends in Ziguinchor. Elder relatives of the Sidibés living in the village, which they call Simbandi Balantakounda (Simbandi the Balanta compound), have sent me audio texts to establish that Balla’s father was called Mamadou (“Modi”) Sidibé and his mother was Nanding Damba. This is a revelation, because Damba is invariably a Mande griot surname. This adds a new twist to the story of Balla’s predilection for music. It is given knowledge that Balla was not a griot, and this is correct, since in Mande culture status and identity are passed down through the father, not the mother. But it seems he did after all have griot blood on his mother’s side.
The other revelation passed on by the villagers is that Balla’s very first instrument was the siko, a square frame drum, which originally comes from the other side of the Atlantic. It was introduced into the region in the 19th century by Maroons from Jamaica who were repatriated by the British to Sierra Leone. The siko is the basis of a widespread creole style of music called gumbe, found all the way from Cape Town to Senegal. It is this drum which accounts for Balla Sidibé’s love of percussion.
Balla’s official name is Moussa. But in Mandinka culture, anyone called Moussa is affectionately nicknamed Balla, meaning “porcupine”, which though a small animal, is regarded as a symbol of strength and power. Balla’s surname, Sidibé, indicates a Fulbe heritage from the Wasulu region of southern Mali, but his mother tongue was Mandinka and his own compositions always included Mandinka lyrics.
Balla’s family were military. His grandfather was in the colonial army and his father served in the army during the First World War. Most of his uncles and brothers were soldiers. Balla too was expected to join the army. But music was his real love. “I used to hang out with the local kora players and drummers. At school I would tap out rhythms on the school desk” he told me in an interview back in 2001, “and the teacher would thwack me. My father also used to hit me if I sang.” In that part of the world, at that time, music was considered an unsavoury occupation, unless you were born into the griot caste of musicians.
Instead Balla trained as a parachutist, but the discipline of army life was not for him. He listened avidly to radio, where he heard French, Cuban and Congolese popular music. He found he was able to imitate these songs easily. At home, such sounds were beginning to filter through into the traditional music of the countryside. Kora players in Casamance developed a new style known as yeyengo. It was heavily syncopated with strong dance rhythms and lots of strumming. (The name apparently comes from the “yéyé” style of French rock star Johnny Hallyday). Mama Maané was one such tune; Balla later transformed this into the song that became one of Baobab’s most successful pieces, On Verra Ça.
After Senegal’s independence from France (1960) Balla, now in his twenties moved to Sedhiou, a bustling town across the Casamance river from Sinbandi Balante, to join the orchestra UCAS Sedhiou. This was when Senegalese bands, who had previously been playing tangos and foxtrots, began adopting a more culturally authentic style of music, drawing on local styles, albeit with Afrocuban rhythms. UCAS Sedhiou were pioneers of this movement. Their main inspiration was the music of Mandinka griots, with their arrangements of lively kora songs like Sutukun Kumbusora, which was later to become one of Balla’s most requested pieces. UCAS Sedhiou introduced Balla to the timbales, two kettle drums of Cuban origin, mounted on a stand and played with sticks. That became his instrument of choice, though he was equally at home with other forms of percussion.
But he was still not singing — that only happened when he moved to Dakar in the mid 1960s. Once there, he checked out the local bands. When he went to watch a popular band called Moulin Rouge in rehearsal, he ended up singing for them a note-perfect version of the Cuban song Guantanamera– he had learnt it off the radio. That marked the beginning of his career as vocalist.
Dakar has always been a very musical city, with a teeming night life. In the first flush of independence, the city boasted dozens of nightclubs, with names like Calypso, Miami, Moulin Rouge, Balafon, Etoile, Saloum, Xandalou, Cannibal, Jandeer, each with its own resident orchestra. There were many bands: Star Jazz de St Louis; Rio Band de Dakar; Ouza et ses Ouzettes; Palladium de Dakar; Harlem Jazz; Guinea Jazz; Las Hondas; and Star Band de Miami to name but a few.
The real turning point for Balla was when, sometime in the mid to late 1960s, — there‘s some variation on dates — he met two other superb musicians who were playing the nightclub circuit: Rudy Gomis, singer and guitarist from Ziguinchor, Casamance (though his family were from Guinea Bissau) and Barthélemy Attisso, from Togo, who had come to study law in Dakar, and had taken up the guitar to pay for his studies. The three of them formed a new band which they called Standard. Rudy Gomis shared Balla’s background in Casamance, but he had different expertise; Kriolu was his mother tongue, and he grew up listening to the driving binary rhythms of gumbe played on the siko square frame drums — the same percussion that was Balla’s first instrument -, and the slow, mournful ballads of Lusophone culture. The trio became a force to be reckoned with and were invited to join the Star Band of the Miami Club, which was to become the launch pad for some of Senegal’s most famous musicians including Youssou NDour.
Then in 1970 a new club opened on Rue Jules Ferry on Dakar’s plateau, close to the Place de l’independence and to the Presidential Palace. It was called Baobab. It was meant to be a meeting place for politicians, intelligentsia and wealthy businessmen, and the owners were looking for a band with chic. The club owners poached six musicians from the Star Band, including Balla Sidibé, Rudy Gomis and Attisso, and the band took the name of the club.
This was how Orchestra Baobab came to life. But nothing was straightforward. Band members came and went — all except for Balla. They had big hits. On Verra Ça and other songs by them were played up and down the country and danced to across villages and cities. In neighbouring Guinea, the president would finish all his speeches quoting the line, On verra ça. They recorded prolifically. They toured West Africa and France. But this did not translate into financial success, their music was heavily pirated, and times were a-changing. Senegal’s first president Leopold Sedar Senghor finally retired in 1980. Senghor was Serer, and Catholic. His successor, Abdou Diouf was Wolof and Muslim. This marked the rise of Wolof language and culture as the dominant mode of expression, including Wolof musical styles such as mbalax, with its frenetic rhythms on sabar drums, which took over the nightclubs. Baobab’s mellow Afrocuban tinged music was now firmly out of fashion.
Balla kept the band going as long as he could, the only one left of the original members, but he struggled to make it work, and finally gave up in 1985; Baobab had run its course. He went into a slump and didn’t play music for a whole year. But Balla’s innate musicality meant that he had to find ways of musicking. He would drop in and do guest appearances with other musicians; and sing a song or two with whatever resident band was playing. In the mid 1990s, I saw him perform several times at the famous Miami Club, that true voice of his shining through an inferior sound system. There would always be someone in the audience (me included) who would request his old favourites, like Sutukum.
Balla never let go of the dream of reforming Baobab. This finally happened in 2001, when the band was reunited after more than 15 years, springing back to life with a brilliant new album, Specialist in All Styles on the World Circuit label, revisiting some of their old hits and introducing new songs, featuring guest singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Youssou NDour, and going on to win awards and charm audiences around the world.
Though the band are in mourning, they are confident that Balla’s spirit will live on. Thierno Koité, the band’s saxophone player told me: “Balla has passed, but he leaves a strong legacy. No one can fill the shoes of Balla. But thankfully we have some fine young singers who know his whole repertoire, and they’ll take us forward.”
On verra ça!