Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta Nehisi Coates

“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”


Since 1976, when the US government officially recognised Black History Month, February has been a time – especially in state schools – to celebrate the emancipatory struggles of runaway slaves, ground-breaking medics and lawyers, and poets and “freedom riders”. For the young Ta-Nehisi Coates, growing up in Baltimore, it was also a time of bewilderment and shame. Watching newsreel footage of the civil rights movement, he got the impression that “the black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehouses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into their streets”.

It is comprehensible, then, that there has been a lot of fanfare for Between the World and Me. It appears at a moment when, thanks to mobile phones and social media, the distressing spectacle of black Americans – many of them young and unarmed – being strangled, clubbed or shot by police officers has created a cacophony calling for change. Black Twitter, Black Lives Matter, hashtag activism: it is a marvellous noise, an Occupy-style swarm energy that, for veterans of an older media imperium, can appear muddling.

The letter begins with the author’s childhood in Baltimore at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic, in streets that “transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat down, a shooting, or a pregnancy.” Everyone is afraid all the time. His father must reach for his belt to preserve his son from worse. Children risk assault on the way to school and study fearfully, knowing prison awaits if they do not pass exams. Even the young men with guns concealed in their ski jackets, who terrorise everyone else, are themselves afraid.

Father and Son
Father and Son

Black Americans were enslaved longer than they have been free, and as a result the deaths of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin are “merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations”. Later he argues: “The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

These are all forceful claims – ones made with a characteristic pivoting towards the (male) black body and the frequent use of words such as “plunder” or “shackle”. They are accompanied by vivid recollections of growing up in gang-ridden West Baltimore where the local lads’ uproarious nihilism is ascribed to the knowledge that “we could not get out” and that “the ground we walked was tripwired”

Coates is at his dreamiest when evoking his time at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC, that he calls “the Mecca”. Cosmopolitan, teeming with “Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses”, it’s a place of self-discovery and self-invention, “a machine crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples”. It is here that he immerses himself in black literature and history, meets his future wife and befriends a middle-class student called Prince Jones who is later unlawfully killed by an undercover police officer.

In part, the book is an ode to writing itself. Coates includes excerpts from Baldwin, Richard Wright and Sonia Sanchez as well as Nas and Ice Cube. He describes “the art of journalism” as “a powerful technology for seekers”. And he remembers his time at Howard as being one where he learned the power of poetry as much as of slogans, and that “The Dream thrives on generalisation, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers.”

The Dream is something Coates often invokes and damns as psychically disfiguring. The Dream, he explains, is “perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways … treehouses and the cub scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” It’s hardly news that there are many tens of millions of Americans – of all colours – who have rarely had a whiff of this aroma. As such, the passage merely highlights the inaudibility of class in this book.


justice 4 trayvon

When talking about race, he says, it is all too often turned into a sociological phenomenon, rather than a physical reality that affects individuals, allaying shame and tempering our response: “All our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” This is imagery that cannot be ignored, that brings that very viscerality to us without compromise, without relief.

And what hope of breaking this cycle of oppression? For Baldwin, it was to be found in a need, at the time of the civil-rights movement, to move beyond the notion of “the Negro Problem” that handicapped both black and white. For Coates, this is both history and present, for no such reconciliation has come to pass. Rather than seek any grand solution himself, he admonishes his son – and his readers – to wake to the status quo, to consider it for ourselves – and to take what action we see fit.


“Bus 174” – A Brazilian Tragedy (Documentary)

Janaina Lopes Neves moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1996 to study administration at the city’s Catholic university. For the next four years, she took the number 174 bus daily from the university campus to her flat. The bus route leads past the majestic palm tree corridor of the Botanical Gardens and towards the city’s heart-shaped lagoon. It’s a short and pleasant hop through one of Rio’s most attractive middle-class neighbourhoods. Yet mid-afternoon on June 12 2000, Janaina embarked on the most traumatic bus journey of her life.

A few stops after she got on, a man ran in, followed by a policeman. The man had a gun and grabbed a passenger hostage. Armed muggings are a daily occurrence on Rio’s buses and, sensing trouble, the driver and the conductor immediately fled the vehicle. After failing to persuade the gunman to give himself up, the policeman also left the bus. All of a sudden, Lopes Neves realised that she and a dozen other passengers were trapped inside – hijacked by an extremely agitated, apparently drugged-up young man.


By the standards of Rio’s urban problems – where violence levels approach those of a country in civil war – the incident was unremarkable. Yet it took unforeseeable dimensions and became one of the defining moments in recent Brazilian history. The bus was parked metres away from the news centre of TV Globo, the main terrestrial channel; and as police reinforcements arrived so did TV crews. The media circus spiralled out of control and, for the next four hours, the hostage incident was broadcast live throughout Brazil, reaching an estimated audience of 35 million people.


One of the Brazilians glued in front of his screen was the documentary-maker José Padilha, who was later to turn the event into a film. He was on the treadmill at his gym when the TV in front of him started to broadcast the siege. There was no way he could go home, since the traffic was log jammed, so for the following three hours he stayed at the gym watching the events unfold.

bus174pica hostage

Because the Brazilian police failed to isolate the area, cameras filmed everything that was going on inside the bus and all the police negotiations with the gunman. Thanks to the passengers’ mobile phones, the people in the bus knew they were on television. At one point, the gunman screamed through the window: “This is not an action movie.”


He was the protagonist in a much more gripping reality show and his behaviour became correspondingly theatrical. Viewers watched in horror as he marched Lopes Neves at gunpoint to the front of the bus and made her write with her lipstick on the windscreen: “He’ll kill us all at 6pm”.



It was immediately obvious to Padilha that the bus siege would make a great documentary. “I think it’s the best filmed hostage situation in history,” says Padilha, whose office is 200 yards from where the event took place. “Normally you never see the hostage-taker and the hostages. Here you see everything. And the bus 174 incident went on for so long.”


But there was another important factor that gave the event wider resonance. During the live broadcast, it became clear that the gunman was not an anonymous delinquent. “Didn’t you kill my friends at Candelaria?” he shouted at the police from the bus window. “I was there.”

The TV pundits covering the story knew instantly what this meant. In 1993, police opened fire on 72 street children sleeping by Candelaria church in the centre of Rio, killing seven. The massacre had international repercussions, bringing the plight of Rio’s street children to a global audience. The gunman, 21-year-old Sandro do Nascimento, was one of the survivors.


Padilha’s outstanding film Bus 174 is as much a bio-pic about Nascimento’s life as it is a true-crime documentary about the hold-up. “Nascimento took part in the two events of recent years that have most come to symbolise violence in Rio,” says Padilha. “How does someone who began at Candelaria end up on that bus? Where was the state?”


Nascimento lived on the margins of society. He had no personal documents and Padilha traces his life through police and prison reports. He discovered the newspaper article that describes how his mother was stabbed to death in front of him when he was six years old. To his surprise, Padilha discovered a remarkable amount of video footage of Nascimento, from newsreels and street child charitable organisations. Nascimento was not as invisible as all that.


When it turned 6pm on the bus, Nascimento covered Lopes Neves’s head in cloth and started counting down from 100. She crouched on the floor. He put the gun to the back of her neck and shot. To TV viewers, it appeared that she had been killed. In fact, he had whispered to her that he was not going to shoot her and told her to pretend it was for real. Lopes Neves, now 27 and still living in Rio, says that at first she was convinced she would die. Then she realised that Nascimento was not a killer. “I was more scared that the police would shoot than that he would shoot. I didn’t have that much fear that he would shoot at all.”


Such fears were well-founded. After she spent two hours as Nascimento’s hostage, he grabbed another girl, Geisa Gonçalves. With his gun pointed at her back, the two walked out of the bus. When they were on the pavement, a police marksman immediately jumped out from behind the bus. He shot Nascimento at point-blank range – but missed and hit Gonçalves. Nascimento instinctively pulled his trigger and shot her twice more. With two bullets in her back and one in her neck, Gonçalves died .


As a mob of hundreds of onlookers and cameramen broke through the cordons and surrounded the bus, Nascimento was lynched by police and suffocated to death. All live on prime-time TV. The bus 174 incident became emblematic of modern Brazil: it captured all the fears about urban violence and the authorities’ inability to deal with the problem. The documentary does not apportion blame, although it is largely sympathetic to Nascimento and the police are shown to have been incompetent.


Padilha left hardly a stone unturned in interviewing all the relevant people, although he did not interview the officer who shot the hostage. “I didn’t want to personalise [the tragedy] and blame the marksman. I wanted to do a film that institutionalised the error.”


To understand the police side, Padilha contacted Rodrigo Pimentel, a former captain of the Bope, Brazil’s elite Swat team. Shortly after the bus incident, Pimentel had gone on national television and criticised how the force handled it. He was imprisoned for 30 days, then sacked. Pimentel, who now works in a bank, eventually became Padilha’s co-producer.

He doesn’t blame the marksman for killing the hostage: “The man was up at 4.30am. He had spent the morning in an operation in a favela. He has been thinking all day, ‘Kill, kill, kill.’ You can’t expect him to change his mentality. The Bope should be about saving lives, but its raison d’être has been changed to killing bandits.”


Pimentel blames politicians for turning the police into an army that rewards the killing of criminals. He has further ire for the state governor, who refused to authorise snipers to shoot Nascimento when he was leaning out of the bus window. The governor, an evangelical Christian, did not want the political consequences from his flock of sanctioning a death on live television. “A shot from a sniper at the beginning was the best solution,” adds Pimentel. Padilha’s film was premiered in Rio shortly after City of God and both are attempts to portray the cycle of violence that has come to define urban Brazilian life. Padilha says that if there is a lesson in his film it is that “when you subject a person to such violence in their childhood, it is likely that he will become violent back”.


Hugh Masekela – “Grazing In the Grass”

Hugh MasekelaThis South African trumpeter scored a massive worldwide hit with “Grazing In The Grass,” becoming one of the biggest names in African music in the process.

South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela has at times been cursed in his life. But he’s emerged on the other side, coming back strong since the end of apartheid, settled back at home, having conquered demons personal and political. He is still making music on the cornet and flugelhorn and singing.


Hugh Ramopolo Masekela was born on 4 April 1939 in Witbank, near Johannesburg. Masekela showed musical ability from a young age, and began to play piano as a child. Inspired by the movie Young Man with a Horn, Masekela began to play the trumpet, encouraged by anti-apartheid activist Father Trevor Huddleston, who helped him acquire the instrument.

At Huddleston’s request, Masekela then received tuition in trumpet playing form Uncle Sauda, who played for the Johannesburg ‘Native’ Municipal Brass Brand. Masekela soon mastered the trumpet, and began to play with other aspiring musicians in the Huddleston Jazz Band – South Africa’s first youth orchestra.

As the apartheid situation in South Africa worsened, Masekela left for London, then New York, where friends (principally countrywoman Miriam Makeba, to whom he was briefly married) helped him land a place at the Manhattan School of Music. Masekela played on the Byrds’ classic rock hit “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star” and performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of ’67.

Already unclassifiable because of the breadth of his music, the next year “Grazin’ In The Grass” made him a huge pop star with its laid-back, easy vibe, hitting the charts in several countries—it reached number one on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in America. The track itself was just filler, recorded in half an hour, but it brought him international fame; suddenly, he was a headlining name. Then, in 1972, he turned his back on all that, and headed back to Africa.


After moving through several countries, he hooked up with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who introduced him to the Ghanaian band Hedzoleh Sound, with whom Masekela recorded a string of hits. In the 1980s, Masekela set up a mobile studio in Botswana, where he further developed his musical style using African mbaqanga strains. Masekela performed with Paul Simon on the Graceland tour, along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Masekela defended Simon vigorously when the tour was seen as a violation of the African National Congress’ cultural boycott. His 1987 hit ‘Bring Him Back Home’ became the anthem for Nelson Mandela’s world tour, following his release from prison in 1992.

Masekela then returned to England, co-penning the successful musical Sarafina before joining Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. Finally, with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Masekela was able to return to South Africa, recording and touring there once more.

Julius Nyerere – “Mwalimu” (Teacher)

Capitalism means that the masses will work, and a few people — who may not labor at all — will benefit from that work. The few will sit down to a banquet, and the masses will eat whatever is left over.

A man of ascetic and unostentatious personal habits, and instantly recognisable in his Mao tunic, Julius Nyerere was born at Butiama, on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, into the small Zanaki tribe. He was 12 before he first went to school, but was immediately singled out for his sparkling intelligence by the Roman Catholic priests. After Makerere University, in Kampala, he taught for three years.

In 1949 he became the first Tanzanian to study at a British university, when he went to Edinburgh on a government scholarship. And it was there, under the influence of post-war Fabian socialists, that he developed his own political ideas of grafting socialism on to African communal existence.

On his return to Tanganyika, Nyerere was forced by the colonial authorities to make a choice between his political activities and his teaching. He was reported as saying that he was a schoolmaster by choice and a politician by accident. Working to bring a number of different nationalist factions into one grouping he achieved this in 1954 with the formation of TANU (the Tanganyika African National Union). He became President of the Union (a post he held until 1977), entered the Legislative Council in 1958 and became chief minister in 1960. A year later Tanganyika was granted internal self-government and Nyerere became premier. Full independence came in December 1961 and he was elected President in 1962.

Nyerere’s integrity, ability as a political orator and organizer, and readiness to work with different groupings was a significant factor in independence being achieved without bloodshed. In this he was helped by the co-operative attitude of the last British governor — Sir Richard Turnbull. In 1964, following a coup in Zanzibar (and an attempted coup in Tanganyika itself) Nyerere negotiated with the new leaders in Zanzibar and agreed to absorb them into the union government. The result was the creation of the Republic of Tanzania.

As President, Nyerere had to steer a difficult course. By the late 1960s Tanzania was one of the world’s poorest countries. Like many others it was suffering from a severe foreign debt burden, a decrease in foreign aid, and a fall in the price of commodities. His solution, the collectivization of agriculture, vilification (Ujamaa) and large-scale nationalization was a unique blend of socialism and communal life. The vision was set out in the Arusha Declaration of 1967:

“The objective of socialism in the United Republic of Tanzania is to build a society in which all members have equal rights and equal opportunities; in which all can live in peace with their neighbours without suffering or imposing injustice, being exploited, or exploiting; and in which all have a gradually increasing basic level of material welfare before any individual lives in luxury.”

However, the campaign proved expensive, and while their leader devoted such resources, time and energy to foreign affairs, his critics in Tanzania argued that he overlooked domestic problems, and failed to apply the same observance of human right abuses. He seldom flinched from using a Preventive Detention Act that allowed him to lock up his opponents virtually at will.

Relations with Zanzibar, which had united with Tanganyika in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania with Nyerere as president, were always strained. Tanzania became ever more dependent upon foreign aid, and decision-making was paralysed by a ponderous bureaucracy. Nyerere was to admit that mistakes had been made, while his devotees pointed to developments – such as the spread of literacy and primary healthcare.

As a pan-Africanist, he could not be faulted for putting his country in the forefront of the frontline states against white minority rule in Africa. He took a principled stand at a great cost to his country, but his people never really minded. Tanzania became a home for exiled freedom-fighters who are now the rulers in a number of southern African states.

Many a time, Nyerere confounded those of us who thought of ourselves as being to his left by appropriating our political lexicon and social agenda. He never quite became a Marxist, but the former shepherd boy, whom we used to deride as “a good boy of the west” and who was viewed with suspicion by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, turned into a tactical ally when he started talking about class struggle and a classless society.

But his African socialist philosophy of Ujamaa only brought misery and economic degradation. Under the man who preached self-reliance, Tanzania depended on foreign aid more than any other African country. That was only one of his contradictions.

Nyerere commands respect for being one of the first post-colonial African leaders to hand over power voluntarily. He retired in 1985 after 23 years as president, admitting that development policies he so vigorously advocated had failed. His detractors would regard his stewardship of Tanzania to have been flawed by his single-minded adherence to a manifestly unworkable policy. Yet Nyerere is more likely to be remembered for having provided a moral leadership to Tanzania, and indeed Africa, when the continent was taking its first shaky steps after independence.

The Power of Purpose by Les Brown

We must look for ways to be an active force in our own lives. We must take charge of our own destinies, design a life of substance and truly begin to live our dreams.”
Some people can come to a crossroads in their life, and not which direction to travel. They could be feeling as though they have lost their sense of purpose or are not sure where to go in their life. At a time when you are facing these feelings, this book can help you by giving you the insight you need to work through the situation.
I deeply believe that all of us have what it takes to make it in today’s competitive and changing world. Someone once told me that the key to ultimate achievement has very little to do with your education or skill level but to find and pursue the kind of work you are meant to do – your “purpose.” No one said choosing your life’s purpose would be easy. There are so many opportunities, it’s a wonder anyone finds their true calling. While it may be difficult, understanding your life’s real purpose will give you the power to have anything you want – anything at all. Once you figure out exactly what that is, getting there will be that much easier. So ask yourself: “What do I really want out of my life?”

Les Brown’s exceptional, The Power of Purpose, will not only help you answer that question, it will also lead you step-by-step toward making each and every one of your dreams come true. Many of the world’s greatest leaders were called failures, until they discovered their life purpose. When you choose an occupation that is truly compatible with your preferences, abilities, and unique personality, you will at last begin to understand the meaning of true happiness and personal success.

Les Brown can assist you, no matter how you are feeling, with this book, The Power of Purpose. It provides you with a great insight on your skills and talents. It can also help you to learn what your purpose in this world is. You can learn from The Power of Purpose the reason you are here, and what you should be doing with yourself. When you can break into your personal purpose, you will have a better sense or who you are and where you are going.

The Power of Purpose was written by Les Brown to teach others how to make their purpose a reality. You will learn a great deal by reading this book, such as how to find the right career for you. You will also learn how to alter your life so that you are living your purpose, and how to get on the path to happiness.


Horses of God – “No One Is Born a Martyr”

This movie is based-on-true-events tale with an acute sociological discernment, Horses Of God, presents a dramatized account of the young men who, on May 16, 2003, committed suicide-bombing atrocities throughout Casablanca. By the end, 45 lives had been claimed (including those of the perpetrators), but Nabil Ayouch’s film is ultimately less interested in the planning and execution of that plot but the path that led the suicide bombers to their doom.

The residents of Sidi Moumen, a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Casablanca, Morocco, live in tin-roofed shacks without electricity, running water or modern sewage disposal. The area sits atop a garbage dump where boys run wild in packs and engage in fierce football (soccer) matches that often burst into violence. Aerial shots paint this slum as a putrid, desiccated wasteland, in which the pickings are thin, even for foragers. The movie, inspired by Mahi Binebine’s novel “The Stars of Sidi Moumen” is not about politics or religion but about poverty and a society steeped in a deadly machismo. In its demystification of these youthful slum dwellers, the film makes their embrace of terrorism frighteningly graspable. Because it follows its main characters over 10 years, from childhood into adulthood, it gives their fates a sense of tragic predictability.

Yachine (Abdelhakim Rachi), depressed and introverted, lives in the shadow of his older brother Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), the pair spending their days scrounging for money, starting fights, and roughhousing with their peers. Their mother, with three sons, has only enough love for one, and she showers Hamid with praise and affection until the day he’s hauled away for smashing the car window of a corrupt cop. When Hamid returns to the slums two years later, he’s found religion and brotherhood with the most extreme of conservative Muslims.

“Horses of God,” a wrenching social-realist drama from the French-born Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, offers a powerful example of the depth of debate about the root causes of terrorism within the Arab world. This feature film traces the origins of an infamous attack few Westerners even know about, because it didn’t happen in London or Madrid or New York but in the heart of Casablanca, perhaps the most tolerant and cosmopolitan city in the North Africa. It would be easy to default to “they hate us for our freedom,” to interpret the Casablanca bombings as an ideological attack on the Westernized culture of Morocco’s largest city, where women walk the streets alone without headscarves, alcohol is widely available and the long-standing Jewish community, although much reduced in size, has not entirely vanished.

For the cynical mullahs who masterminded the attack, those may have been the reasons, although even that may be an oversimplification. It’s just as likely that al-Qaida-affiliated local radicals were pursuing their usual strategy of causing maximum disruption and turmoil at minimal cost, and of trying to shock a governing regime into military overreaction and/or widespread repression. As Ayouch’s film makes clear, the young men who carried out the attacks were desperately poor kids from the slums who had never even seen the skyscrapers and glamorous restaurants of the central city before, let alone encountered any Jews or Westerners except the ones on TV. Whatever “Islamic extremism” they may have absorbed had been recently implanted by opportunistic evangelists who filled the gaps in a failed state and a divided society, offering a measure of self-respect and discipline to dead-end kids who had none.

“Horses of God” – a phrase the Prophet Muhammad uses to describe those who fight for jihad – opens in the early ‘90s, when the four boys at its centre are just street ragamuffins out of classic European neorealism, running wild in the garbage-strewn alleys of Sidi Moumen, a sprawling shantytown across the highway from Casablanca proper. It’s a brutal world of drug dealers, corrupt cops and prostitutes, captured in exciting, intimate and claustrophobic detail, where a neighborhood soccer game can abruptly degenerate into gang violence and a party with a bottle of purloined wine can end with a rape. Throughout the film, our focal point is the likable Yashine, a good-natured, irrepressible kid who takes his nickname from his sports idol, the legendary Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashine. His older brother Hamid (played by Abdelilah Rachid, real-life brother of Abdelhakim), is both his protector and a troublemaker who’s clearly bound for a bad destination, with his backward Yankees cap and affected hip-hop mannerisms. Hamid drinks, deals drugs, shoots pool and openly defies the township’s crooked cops, until the day he goes too far and disappears into Morocco’s notorious penal system.

Suddenly, their lives have a noble purpose. They are expected to die for the glory of Allah, having embraced a cause larger than themselves. Unlike other movies about jihad, “Horses of God,” doesn’t concentrate on the terrorists’ grandiose indoctrination and the rituals of their final meals, prayers and preparations, which can attach a perverse glamour to suicide. Even after Yachine is chosen to lead one operation — the bombing of an Italian restaurant — he is shown shaking with fear, and his eyes do not burn with heavenly fantasies.

The tragedy is that their youth is so rarely a source of that kind of innocent joy. Instead, it’s their Achilles’ heel, a weakness that makes them easy prey for men—and sometimes other boys—on the prowl. The first of many men who exploits them, Ba’Moussa, earns their hatred (and ours) for stealing their labour while treating them with bullying contempt. But he turns out to be just the warm-up act for the real villains, the jihadi zealots who steal the boys’ lives. Hamid, Yachine, Habil, and Fouad all seem to buy into their vision of redemption through martyrdom, after years of inculcation, though their transformation is presented not as an epiphany, but as a long process of blind indoctrination. Fed by boyish longings like the desire to impress a girl, it’s grounded in the same thinly veiled threats of violence and insistence on unquestioning obedience to male authority as the rest of their lives have been. They never actually choose to become terrorists; they’re led to that point in a series of well-rehearsed steps and then told they must follow through or be killed for refusing. As the camera lingers on the revered leader who issued the order after he bids them goodbye, his coolly appraising gaze undercuts all his unctuous talk about brotherly love and respect. In the end, these poor doomed young men are just so many pack horses.

Orchestra Baobab – “Specialists In All Styles”

From ominous beginnings as the weekend house band at a Dakar club for government officials, Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, named for the club (which in turn took its name from the native baobab tree), went on to become one of the prominent bands of world music, with an influence that extended far beyond their national boundaries, throughout West Africa and into Europe. Put together by original leader and saxophonist Baro N’Diaye, the first version was a seven-piece group, three of them enticed away from Dakar’s biggest band, the Star Band, who had a regular gig at Ibra Kasse’s club. While they had a strong Cuban influence — Cuban music had been a prevalent sound throughout West Africa since the ’40s, imported by sailors and played on the radio — Orchestra Baobab added African music, in large part from griot singer Laye M’Boup, who had a vast repertoire of Wolof material.

In the glamorous world of Senegal’s 1970s nightclub scene, there was only one band worth dressing up for. Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 as the house band for Dakar’s Baobab club, where artists, politicians, intellectuals, movie stars and the occasional visiting dictator met to dance to the band’s mix of Cuban and Casamance (south Senegalese) rhythms. Hired to play the music that audiences wanted to hear from traditional songs to the latest chart hits, Orchestra Baobab rapidly outgrew their status as a house band and became famous all over Africa.

It wasn’t long before the new sound proved so popular that the group wasn’t just entertaining on weekends, but every night of the week, being hailed on par with Guinea’s legendary Bembeya Jazz National for their fusion of sounds. Inevitably, personnel fluctuated and the new musicians brought their own influences, expanding the feel and range of the band with Maninke and Malinke songs, which became integrated into the whole. Perhaps the most important addition was singer Thione Seck, who took over the lead vocalist spot after the death of M’Boup in a 1974 car wreck.

While Senegal’s élite danced till dawn with their soignée girlfriends, Orchestra Baobab began leavening the strictly Cuban diet with a rich array of African elements. Atisso brought his idiosyncratic version of the Congolese guitar style, Gomis the lilting ballads of the Casamance, Senegal’s forested southern region. Nigerian saxophonist Peter Udo introduced a touch of honking high life, while Ndiouga Dieng, a griot, a traditional praise singer, represented the neo-Islamic sounds of Dakar’s hinterland.


They continued to play the Baobab Club regularly, but also entertained at state occasions, such as official New Year’s Eve dances and even at the wedding of designer Pierre Cardin’s daughter in Paris. Finally, the Baobab Club closed in 1979 and the band went on to make their home at the Ngalam nightclub (or the Djandeer Club, according to some historians). Also during this time, they tried to make their mark in Europe by traveling to Paris in 1978. They recorded On Vera Ca: The 1978 Paris Sessions, one of their best discs and certainly the best-produced, although it leaned too heavily on their Spanish-language material. Other than that, the trip proved to be a disaster, losing money, and they returned home. At the beginning of the ’80s, they were indisputably Senegal’s biggest band.

They recorded regularly (two albums, Mouhamadou Bamba and Sibou Odia were edited into Bamba, a 1983 U.S. release), and continued to stretch their limits by bringing in more African influence, which reached its height with the classic Pirates Choice of 1982.


But while Baobab remained Senegal’s top group up to the late Seventies, the balance of society was changing. The band barely noticed it, but out in the quartiers populaires , the sprawling, largely impoverished suburbs, where nobody cared about suits, ties or the cha-cha-cha, a pop revolution was underway, centred round a young singer, Youssou N’Dour, and a raw new music called Mbalax. The African percussion that had been subsumed into Baobab’s gentle sound was brought right to the surface, alongside griot vocals, sax and rhythmic guitar; the linguistic medium was exclusively Wolof, the lingua franca of modern Senegal.

Suddenly finding themselves without gigs, and unwilling to adapt to the new trends, Baobab split and might have ended up a mere footnote in musical history were it not for the belief of a small number of Western enthusiasts, notably Nick Gold of World Circuit Records. While new African music was becoming increasingly formulaic – N’Dour’s huge-selling ‘7 Seconds’ with Neneh Cherry being a prime example – Baobab’s music harked back to the earthy, organic feel that had attracted Western ears in the first place.

They tried to compete by updating their sound, but it didn’t work and by 1987, Orchestra Baobab had disbanded. However, everything comes full circle and in 2001, with the European reissue of an expanded Pirates Choice (2002 U.S.), Orchestra Baobab, older and wiser, re-formed and played dates around the globe, going into the studio to make a new album — produced by the man responsible for their fall from grace, Youssou N’Dour.