Written by John Armstrong, September 2021
‘Music was always a second thing to me. My aim was to be a lawyer,’ confessed Togolese guitarist Barthélemy Attisso to British journalist Phil Meadley, in a 2013 interview in The Independent.
That ‘second thing’ led to Attisso being regarded by many peers as one of the finest West African guitarists in history, (or according to Rolling Stone “one of the planet’s greatest electric guitarists”) initially for his pioneering work with 60s Dakar giants The Star Band and later, more famously, as guitarist and arranger over more than a dozen albums for the mighty Orchestre Baobab, whose distinction as masters of the Cuban- tinged Senegalese sound was unparalleled throughout the 70s and the first part of the 80s.
Born in 1945 in Lomé, Togo, Attisso originally went to Senegal to study law at the University Of Dakar, at the suggestion of his Dakar-based grandfather. Once there, he needed work to finance his studies. His first choice, teaching, proved impossible to combine with his law studies: he needed a night-job, and it occurred to him that music was the only practical solution. He purchased a guitar and an instruction book, studied the records of all the guitarists whom he admired- Franco, Wes Montgomery, Dr Nico, and others- and set about getting work on the thriving Dakar nightclub scene such as the Star, the Palladium, the Calypso, and the Tabalah, until he got a lucky break at Club Miami, when he stood in as guitarist with the Star Band, whose regular guitarist had recently left. Although Attisso only considered himself good enough to play rhythm guitar, the leader told him to play lead, loved what he heard, and invited him to stay on as a permanent band member. The next big break was a move to the exclusive new club, Baobab, and it was here, with Balla Sidibe, Rudy Gomis and others, that the seeds of one of West Africa’s most enduring musical legends were first sowed.
Although Baobab were eclipsed somewhat in the early 80s by Mbalax star Youssou N’Dour in Senegal, World Circuit producer Nick Gold happened to hear their classic 1983 album ‘Ken Dou Werente’ and, mystified why a band of such obvious excellence seemed to have drifted out of popularity, made it his mission firstly, to reissue some of their finest material and later, with Youssou Ndour, to bring the band back together to record a series of completely new sessions with most of the original members, including Barthélemy. The acclaimed ‘comeback’ album ‘Specialist in all Styles’ (2002) was followed by the superb ‘Made In Dakar’ (2007).
In 2001, the classic 1983 album featuring signature Barthélemy guitar playing was re-released internationally for a second time as ‘Pirates Choice’, followed by a request for Baobab to perform a live show at the Barbican. But 16 years as a busy and successful Lomé commercial lawyer had passed since Barthélemy had picked up his trusty Gibson Les Paul guitar. ‘I had thought it was all over, so I had simply parked my guitar,’ he told Guardian journalist Robin Denselow in 2007. ‘I told my wife that I had lost my touch… she replied that I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it, and so every night after work, I would practise till 2 am, or right through the night, until I could play again’.
And play again he did, brilliantly for many years, to international audiences, to even greater acclaim than he received the first time around in Dakar’s exclusive Club Baobab way back in 1970.
Barthélemy Attisso passed away peacefully in Lome aged 76 on August 29th, 2021, after contracting coronavirus. He was surrounded by family and friends when he left us.