Gomis was the last survivor of the founders of Orchestra Baobab, Senegal's most famous band.
The world has lost one of the great pioneers of the post-independence movement of modern popular music in Senegal. After a long illness, Rudolphe "Rudy" Clément Gomis, founding member of the famous Baobab Orchestra, conductor, composer, singer and percussionist, is deceased on April 27, 2022 at the age of 75 in his hometown, Ziguinchor, capital of Casamance, in southern Senegal.
He hadn't been able to perform with the groupe for some time, but his hypnotic ballads such as “Kumba” et “Utrus Horas” – with powerful lyrics, sumptuous melodies and driving rhythm – are among the most emblematic songs of Baobab, still so spellbinding after almost half a century.
As a singer and songwriter, Gomis' talent lay in "the fusion of humor and melancholy", as veteran singer Amadou Sarr told me in a note he wrote for his funeral. old friend. His genius was not only reflected in his philosophical and metaphorical lyrics, but also in his soulful melodies. On songs like Coumba, her slightly raspy, expressive voice swings beautifully between pathos and optimism.
He played a key role in the creation of the very particular style of Orchestra Baobab, a group composed of exceptional musicians from different regions of Senegal, as well as Mali and Togo. Their success is largely due to his leadership qualities and team spirit. Fifty years later, Orchestra Baobab continues to keep Senegalese music alive and diverse and to travel the world with it, mainly thanks to Gomis.
The early years of Orchestra Baobab
Gomis was the last survivor of the group's founders. He created Orchestra Baobab in 1970 in Dakar with two other exceptional musicians, the singer Balla Sidibe also from Casamance, and Barthelemy Attisso, the Togolese guitarist. They had already worked together in a small group called Standard, designing a collective, cosmopolitan and varied style.
In Senegal in the 1970s, many local bands mostly covered versions of Cuban hits from the 1950s, singing in broken Spanish. But with Baobab, the references to Cuban music were subtly rethought in other musical languages to make new compositions, and this delicious mixture was their charm.
Of all the groups that enlivened Dakar's nightlife in the 1970s, Orchestra Baobab was the most professional, both on stage and in the studio, always perfectly in tune with controlled, sophisticated arrangements that were well anchored in the groove.
Senegal gained independence in 1960. Playing for the political establishment at the posh "Baobab" nightclub in central Dakar, the band enjoyed great success throughout the 1970s, with iconic albums like " We'll see " (We'll See). “Yes, we were very popular, but that did not guarantee us an easy life”, commented Gomiscommented Gomis in a long interview that I did in 2001 and which is kept at the British Library Sound Archive.
At that time, we had a Catholic president, (Léopold Sédar) Senghor, who said that you could play pieces of French and Cuban styles… Then, after the beginning of the 1980s, the Senegalese lost interest in the sounds of Baobab; they just wanted to listen to Wolof music.
The Wolofs are the majority ethnic group and Wolof the most widely spoken language in Dakar and northern Senegal. In 1980, the new president Abdou Diouf, a Wolof Muslim, introduced a different social and cultural dynamic.
Although they have a lot of great Wolof songs in their repertoire, like Mohamadou Bamba, sung by Thione Seck, the Wolof singer, Orchestra Baobab was not comfortable with the idea of throwing itself fully into the mbalax, a musical style of Wolof origin later made famous by Youssou N'dour.
The group finally separated in 1985 before reforming in 2001 and imposing itself on the international scene.
A rich journey
Gomis' origins are a determining factor in Orchestra Baobab's unique musical style and charm. He defended multi-ethnic sounds, a natural response to the environment in which he grew up. Senegal is divided into two regions by the Gambia River. To the south, the lush Casamance, where Gomis hailed, encompasses a multitude of languages, religions and musical traditions found nowhere else in the country and under-represented nationally.
Gomis explained that his Bissau-Guinean heritage jumps out at the first mention of his surname. His grandfather, of Manjak ethnicity, was born in Guinea-Bissau (called Portuguese Guinea at the time). The Manjak were largely Christianized and given Portuguese surnames, such as Gomes, which became Gomis by creolization. Their musical traditions are part of a much larger culture, shared by the whole of the Black Atlantic, and their main language is Kriolu, a mixture of local languages and Portuguese. This is the language Gomis spoke at home, and many of his songs are in Kriolu, such as 'Utrus Horas' and 'Cabral'.
His first contact with music was the asiko:
At Christmas, New Years and weddings, my family would play asiko drums and the whole neighborhood was singing around us.
Also known as the gumbé, the asiko is a type of celebratory drum that was brought to the shores of West Africa from Jamaica in the 1800s by resettled Maroons. Rudy didn't know the origins of this instrument, but it was a gateway to other Caribbean styles like reggae and Cuban sound, and to various African music. "The asiko, he will say later, connects me to the entire African coast, up to Angola".
Rudy Gomis' father was a strict ship's captain. Rudy worked hard at school but his passion was music:
I went to nightclubs in Ziguinchor to see different bands and I told myself that I could do better than this singer; why am I paying to listen to it? So I asked my dad, 'If I get good grades, will you give me anything I ask of you?' What I wanted was a guitar. He accepted.
He trained daily, listening to various recordings. His favorites were the music of the Cuban orchestra Orquesta Aragon, the traditional styles of Casamance and Guinea-Bissau, and the voice of the Gambian griot singer Laba Sosseh, popular at the time. 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's something for everyone.
At the time, in Senegal, people who were not descendants of craftsmen lineages - called griots – weren't supposed to make music:
“My father said to me: 'No, you are not a griot… You drop the guitar and you continue your studies, or else you leave.' I chose to leave. However, before I could even do that, my father threw my suitcase out of the house.
After the separation from Orchestra Baobab, 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 kept in touch and occasionally played together.
The legendary producer Nick Gold, Youssou N'Dour and others urged Orchestra Baobab to reform. Nick Gold had reissued their 1982 album Pirates Choice under the label World Circuit Records, which reached an international audience, and their recordings began to become cult. Orchestra Baobab reformed in 2001, thus launching its new international career.
Under the direction of Gomis, they reconnected with their old team spirit, recording this time in better conditions and featuring great artists. A series of new hit albums were released consisting of old and new songs for their audiences scattered around the world.
In 2020, Gomis was able to celebrate the 50 years of the creation of Baobab. In 2001, in the excitement of their reunion, he confided 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 that will last.
Orchestra Baobab will make those wishes come true, no doubt.