Orchestra Baobab at Lisner
Saturday, June 21, 2008 at 01:19PM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • June 21, 2008

                                                                                  Photo by Jonas Karrsson
The Birchmere booked Orchestra Baobab into its spacious, no-seats dance hall on Thursday night, rather than the usual stage-and-tables performing space. Good thing -- it's impossible to sit still when this Senegalese band gets moving, and it gets moving fast. Churning out a set of Afro-Cuban dance pop (a style the group virtually invented back in the 1970s) it kept the crowd jumping all night, from the loose, sultry rhythms of "Nijaay" (off its newest album, "Made in Dakar") to the explosiveness of "Bul Ma Miin."

Lead singer Medoune Diallo was in fine form, leading the nine-piece band through its famously eclectic range of styles, which includes calypso, Congolese rumba and even American blues. Despite an ill-fated effort at a singalong (and really, how many people can sing in Wolof?), Diallo had the crowd with him from the opening notes of "Ndiaga Niaw" and held it to the end.

But he may have been upstaged by tenor saxophonist Issa Cissoko, who appears to be the happiest man on the planet. Smiling, dancing and firing off riffs in tunes like "Colette" and "Ndongo Dara," Cissoko looked like there was nowhere else he'd rather be, and the effect was infectious. Even guitarist Barthélemy Attisso -- whose low-key demeanor belies a ferocious musical brain -- couldn't help but crack a smile.

Attisso's playing, in fact, was almost reason enough to see the show. The Orchestra Baobab's strength comes from its feel-good, imaginative music rather than the virtuosity of its players; there isn't a lot of showing off onstage. But Attisso's a fascinating musical thinker, as he proved again and again -- particularly on the irresistible, Cuban-flavored "Jiin Ma Jiin Ma."

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