Senegal: Rudy Gomis, a masterful collaborator who brought to life the diversity of Senegalese music
The world has lost one of the great pioneers of the post-independence modern popular music movement in Senegal. After a long illness, Rudolphe “Rudy” Clément Gomis – co-founder of the famous Orchester Baobab, conductor, composer, singer and percussionist – died on April 27, 2022 at the age of 75 in his hometown, Ziguinchor , the capital of the Casamance region in southern Senegal.
He hadn’t been able to perform with the dance group for some time, but his hypnotic ballads such as Coumba and Utrus Horas – with their powerful lyrics, luxurious melodies and deep groove – remain among the most iconic songs of Baobab, still bewitching after nearly half a century. century.
As a singer and songwriter, Gomis had a genius for “fusing humor with melancholy,” as veteran singer Amadou Sarr told me in a note from his old friend’s funeral. It wasn’t just in Gomis’ philosophical and metaphorical lyrics, but also in his talent for soulful melodies. On songs like Coumba, his slightly rough and expressive voice oscillates beautifully between pathos and optimism.
Gomis played a key role in creating the distinctive style of Orchestra Baobab, a group made up of exceptional musicians from different regions of Senegal as well as Mali and Togo. Much of their success was due to his leadership qualities and collaborative spirit. Fifty years later, Orchestra Baobab continues to bring the diversity of music to life in Senegal and to travel the world with it, largely thanks to Gomis.
The early years of Orchestra Baobab
Gomis was the last survivor of the group’s founders. He formed Orchestra Baobab in 1970 in Dakar with two other exceptional musicians, the singer Balla Sidibé also from Casamance, and Berthèlemy Atisso, the Togolese guitarist. They were already working together in a small group called Standard, incubating a collaborative, cosmopolitan and varied style.
During the 1970s in Senegal, many local bands mostly covered versions of 1950s Cuban hits, singing in pseudo-Spanish. But with Baobab, references to Cuban music were subtly reworked within other musical idioms in a new composition, and this delicious blend was part of their charm.
Of all the groups that animated Dakar’s nightlife in the 1970s, they were the most professional live and in the studio, always perfectly in tune with masterful and sophisticated arrangements and a deep groove.
Senegal gained independence in 1960. Playing at the posh Baobab nightclub in central Dakar for the political establishment, the band enjoyed great success throughout the 1970s, releasing iconic albums like On Verra Ça ( We’ll see). “Yes, we were very popular, but that didn’t translate to making a good living,” commented Gomis) in a lengthy interview with me in 2001, housed in the British Library Sound Archive.
At that time, we had a Catholic president, (Léopold Sédar) Senghor, who said that we could play French and Cuban styles… But then, after the early 1980s, the Senegalese lost interest in the Baobab sound. Instead, they just wanted to hear Wolof music.
The Wolof are the majority ethnic group and language in Dakar and northern Senegal. In 1980, the new president Abdou Diouf, Muslim of Wolof ethnicity, inaugurated a different social and cultural dynamic.
Despite having many great Wolof songs in their repertoire, such as Mohamadou Bamba sung by Wolof singer Thione Seck, Baobab was uncomfortable going full-throttle into Wolof-derived mbalax, the musical style later popularized by Youssou N ‘Dour.
The group finally broke up in 1985. But they reunited in 2001 – and went international.
A rich past
Gomis’ experience is a crucial factor in Orchestra Baobab’s unique style and appeal. He championed a multi-ethnic sound, a natural response to the environment in which he was raised. Senegal is divided into two regions by the Gambia River. To the south, the lush Casamance, where Gomis hails from, encompasses a multitude of languages, religions and musical traditions not found elsewhere in the country and under-represented nationally.
Gomis explained that his Guinean heritage is evident from his surname. His grandfather, of Manjak ethnicity, was born in Guinea Bissau (then Portuguese Guinea). The Manjaks were largely Christianized and given Portuguese surnames, such as Gomes which became creolized as Gomis. Their musical traditions are part of a much larger culture shared across the Black Atlantic, and their main language is Kriolu, a mixture of local languages with elements of Portuguese. It was the language Gomis spoke at home, and many of his songs are in Kriolu, such as Utrus Horas and Cabral.
His first taste of playing music was asiko:
At Christmas, New Years and at weddings, my family played asiko drums; the whole neighborhood would sing around us.
Also known as the gumbe, the asiko is a type of celebratory drum that was brought to the West African coast from Jamaica in the 1800s by resettled Maroons. Rudy didn’t know the origins of asiko, but it was a bridge to other Caribbean styles like reggae and Cuban sound, and through various African music. Asiko, he later said, “connects me to the whole coast of Africa, all the way to Angola”.
Rudy Gomis’ father was a strict ship’s captain. Rudy worked hard at school but his passion was music:
I was going to nightclubs in Ziguinchor to see different bands and I was like, I could do better than this singer, why am I paying to hear him? So I asked my dad, if I get good grades, will you give me what I ask for? What I wanted was a guitar. He accepted.
He practiced every day, listening to various recordings. His favorites were the music of the Cuban orchestra Orquesta Aragón, the traditional styles of Casamance and Guinea Bissau, and the voice of the then-popular Gambian griot singer Laba Sosseh. We find traces of all these sounds and influences in the music of Baobab. Part of what makes their music so special is that there is something for everyone.
In Senegal, at the time, people who were not born into hereditary lines of craftsmen – the so-called “griots” – were not expected to play music.
My father said, “No, you’re not a griot… You give up the guitar and you continue your studies, or you leave. I chose to leave. But before I could even do that, my dad threw my suitcase out of the house.
The return of the baobab
After Orchestra Baobab split up, Gomis, a trained language teacher, founded his own language school (named Center Baobab) in Dakar, where he taught the many languages spoken in southern Senegal and Guinea Bissau. The band members stayed in touch and sometimes played together.
Legendary producer Nick Gold, Youssou N’Dour and others have urged Orchestra Baobab to get back together. Gold had re-released his 1982 album Pirates’ Choice through World Circuit Records and it reached an international audience, where their recordings began to attract a cult following. Orchestra Baobab reformed in 2001, launching its new international career.
Under the guidance of Gomis, they have rekindled their old spirit of collaboration, this time recording in better conditions and with superb guests. A series of new hit albums have been released, bringing songs new and old to audiences around the world.
In 2020, Gomis could celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Baobab. In 2001, in the excitement of their reunion, he said to me:
I have unreleased songs in my pocket. I am a composer. That’s my job in this band… We want to make good music forever.
Orchestra Baobab will make those wishes come true, no doubt.
Lucy Durán, Professor of Music, SOAS, University of London