Senegal's rising star Cheikh Lô ( continued from page 1 )

  Lô was born in the late '50s to Senegalese parents in Bobo Dioulasso, the quiet, ancient second city of Burkina Faso, deep in the interior of West Africa. Though his father had moved the family to Bobo in 1953, they stayed close to their Senegalese roots by way of all those visitors. Young Cheikh took an early interest in music and began playing drums and congas, and singing. His father tolerated this, but his mother disapproved. "The other sons of my father were all studying to become bureaucrats," Lô told me. Lôoking back, he understands his mother's initial reaction. "Musicians did not have a good image back then. People who played music made their careers in life shows. You were always in places where people drank lots of alcohol, where there were women, and all these things. So mothers were afraid to see their children go to these places. It took awhile for people to understand that music was not something you did in order to have that kind of life. It's a profession."
Lô's professional career started in Bobo with Orchestre Volta Jazz, a kind of variety band that did Cuban and Congolese hits and a few pop adaptations of Burkinabe folklore. After moving to Senegal in 1978, Lô played drums and percussion with Ouza, a progressive mbalax singer, and then with the house band at the Hotel Savana. Once again, he found himself immersed in international variety. By then, the Zairean sound was in full flower, Cameroonean makossa was coming on strong, and reggae had entered the mix. Lô absorbed everything. In 1985, he was given his first guitar, and he began writing songs. He soon released his first cassette, which earned him well-received appearances on Senegalese television.
singer Cheikh Lo
singer song writter Cheikh Lô with tama (talking drum) player Assane Thiam
Africa Fete '98 New York City
Lô began working with a group of Ivoirien and French musicians, and they all went to Paris to record in 1987. There, the group disintegrated, but Lô stayed for two years. He spent most of his time in recording studios, and he picked up as much as he could. His casual contacts with Zaire's most successful progressive singer, Papa Wemba, were especially memorable. "I was a drummer. So when there was a group who came and didn't have a drummer, I would practice with them. Papa Wemba's drummer was also a businessman, so if he wasn't there, I would help out. He's from the school of Tabu Ley, and when I was young, I listened to Tabu Ley a lot."

You can hear echoes of both singers in the vocal on "Dokandeme." He starts out with a delicate rising melody, almost breathy in tone, but then he opens up to a passionate, full-throated blare. In general, Lô's voice is rougher than Youssou N'Dour's and deeper than Baaba Maal's. In the end, it stands alone, another utterly unique West African vocal.

"Dokandeme" was first recorded as the title track to Lô's 1990 cassette, recorded on his return to Dakar, and it launched his career there in earnest. He recorded another cassette after that, but dissatisfied with its sound, he never released it. By then, Lô had conceived of a new sound for his music, something that would set it apart from the pur et dur (pure and hard) mbalax that dominates the Senegalese market. Lô wanted to wait for the opportunity to realize his vision, and that chance came in 1995 when N'Dour agreed to produce Né La Thiass.

The lyrics to "Dokandeme," rerecorded for Ne La Thiass, deal with the problems of immigrants in Europe. The song grew out of Lô's French experience and it resonated deeply with the Senegalese, who if they haven't struggled with these problems directly, have friends or relatives who have. But the themes that inspire most of Lô's songs are not socio-political, but religious. For all his wanderings and cross-cultural explorations, Lô's brand of spirituality marks him as fundamentally Senegalese, and it colors his music as profoundly as Rastafarianism colors reggae.

Lô is a Baye Fall, a member of a mystical brotherhood within the larger Islamic brotherhood of the Mourides. Islam has existed in West Africa for centuries, but only in this century have African societies embraced the religion en masse. The founder of the Mourides, Cheikh Amadu Bamba, made this embrace possible in Senegal by putting the teachings of Islam into terms that the Wolof and other Senegalese peoples could accept and integrate into their lives.

"His philosophy enveloped everything," Lô told me. "He said, 'Pray to God as if you were going to die tomorrow, because if you think you are going to die tomorrow, you will pray a lot today.' Then he said, 'Work as if you were never going to die.' That was his approach. That is the beginning of Mouridism." The emphasis on work is key, for the Mourides are now responsible for an estimated 80% of the businesses in Senegal. The ubiquitous, painted trucks that act as Dakar's most widely used public transportation-known as "Car Rapides"-are but one of many enterprises run by the Mourides from their holy city, Touba.

Aside form Car Rapides, foreign visitors to Dakar are apt to notice men with dreadlocks and colorful patchwork clothing. Isle Gore, the famous site from which many slaves were loaded onto ships bound for the New World-is now home to many of these humble adepts. These are the Baye Fall. Their spiritual guide is Cheikh Ibra Fall, who was inseparable from Cheick Amadu Bamba. The two sages, or marabouts as the West Africans call them, died just three years apart, Bamba in 1927 and Fall in 1930. I asked Lô to explain the Baye Fall.

"The Baye Fall are the soldiers of the mosque," he said. "They're the ones who show the road. They don't pray as much as the other Mourides, but in place of prayer, they work. It was the followers of Cheikh Ibra Fall who cut back the bush around Touba, who built everything, and who showed how the adepts should comport themselves, how they must work for the earth. Cheikh Ibra Fall was a worker and a great mystic."

Lô sings praise songs to both marabouts on Ne La Thiass. A deep percussive pulse and incantatory vocals make "Bamba Sunu Goorgul" especially effective. All at once it becomes clear that the integrity and force of Lô's music does not just come from his clear and distinct musical ideas, but from spiritual conviction. Lô's dreadlocks can create confusion outside of Senegal. People presume him a reggae man, which he is not. Even the Rastas get thrown.

"When Rastamen come to Touba, they're astonished," said Lô, "because they don't imagine that there are dreads like that in Africa. Now, they're starting to discover. I met Luciano, a reggae singer, recently. After his concert in Dakar, he came to Touba, and he was very surprised by the Baye Fall. In the villages around Touba, you find these old men, 80 years and older, with long, white dreads. It was as if he found himself there. Because the Rastamen talk about Africa, Africa. So here is Cheikh Ibra Fall, the first dread, in West Africa."

Lô's personal marabout, Mame Massamba Ndiaye, is one of these snowy dread elders, over 100-years-old, Lô claims. Lô closes Ne La Thiass with a beautiful praise song to Massamba called "Guiss Guiss." The song has an underlying folk-rock feel, but gains a quirky uplift from its offbeat guitar part. Lô alternates between whistling, one of his trademarks, and singing in a high, keening voice. Behind it, you can distinctly make out a more familiar voice, Youssou N'Dour's. Lô invited N'Dour to sing on another track, a coolly understated remake of N'Dour's hit "Set," which was originally written to encourage Dakar's citizens to help clean up the city during a garbage workers' strike. But N'Dour's spot on "Guiss Guiss" came about in the studio. "Youssou got the feeling," said Lô, who was more than happy to accommodate his producer.

"Guiss Guiss" means vision, and aside from lauding his marabout, Lô uses the song to state his own vision of what's important in life-knowledge of the creator, friends and family, children above all. Lô has long wanted his messages to extend far beyond Senegal's borders, and he's always believed that the key to that is creating an original and inspirational sound. As he told me, "If the music doesn't please you, you are not going to search to find out what it is saying." This spiritual motivation drove Lô in his efforts to create a blend of musical styles that would move his country's pop music ahead in a new direction. "It was hard work," he says now, and the success that work has now earned him must be especially sweet, for above all, it validates his calling as a Baye Fall, a tireless worker with an eye to the next world.
--Banning Eyre

 Banning reviews Lô's debut international recording Né La Thiass.

 Cheikh Lô's profile page 1

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