Senegal's rising star Cheikh Lô

When Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô was growing up in Burkina Faso, his father, a successful jeweler, used to put many strangers up in their house. "There were Toucouleur there," Lô recalls. "There were Malians passing through. Every day, people came and people went.. Sometimes, there were thirty people in our home." Maybe that's where Lô learned the easy openness that critics keep noting in his music. Lô's debut international recording, Né La Thiass (Nonesuch/World Circuit), is just now being released in the U.S., but last year, a chorus of European writers declared it world music album of the year, and celebrated Lô as the next major star to emerge from Africa. Time after time, they observed that Lô begins with the mbalax sound that put Senegalese pop on the map, but then spirits in bits of Latin music, Congolese rumba, and other flavors harder to pin down. Disparate elements settle in together as comfortably as strangers welcomed into a warm, family household.

"Well, any music that makes me feel good is good for me," Lô told me over the phone from a hotel in Germany, where he was out on tour with his 8-piece band this summer. I was asking about his avowed affection for Zairean (Congolese) music, often pooh-poohed as superficial by West African musicians. "The Zaireans have their own conception of music-lots of melody and lots of rhythm," Lô explained. "I know musicians in Senegal who say, 'Oh, Zairean music. Da, da, da, da, da.' But I never say that. Because if you think that way, you won't be open to music. And openness is necessary for cultural change."

Openness comes as second nature for Lô, and that easy touch may be his real edge, for he's certainly not the first guy to have the idea of blending mbalax and Latin music. Mbalax itself has roots in the Afro-Cuban sound that was widely imitated in Senegal from the '40s through the '70s. Some say the Senegalese had the steamiest Latin music love affair going in Africa. More recently, the Africando project has joined Senegalese singers with New York Latin players to create new, '90s versions of the blend, and Africando's success has inspired bands and singers back in Dakar to repeat the formula there. The difference is, with Lô, nothing ever sounds like a formula.

  singer Cheikh Lo
Senegalese singer song writter Cheikh Lô
performing at Africa Fete '98 Boston


Take "Boul de Tagale," the lead track on Né La Thiass. From the top, acoustic guitars strum out a clave-like rhythm while a flute adds a lazy little melody-it could be from some '60s lounge tune. Lô steps right up to the mic with his clear, brittle voice. He builds fabulously, and behind him, other acoustic guitar parts break out playing funky, off-beat melodies you might hear in a Malian pop song. Occasional cracklings of sabar drumming announce the mbalax element, and the song unfolds with a momentum all its own, growing denser and denser, until the weave of feather-light sounds come together like wind, and the groove turns miraculously, inexplicably, very heavy.

"In general, African singers tend to have one main style." That's Senegal's biggest superstar Youssou N'Dour, who produced "Né La Thiass." "Ali Farka is Sonray blues, Baaba Maal is the sound of Foura Toro, Youssou N'Dour is Wolof Mbalax. But Cheikh, he can be all of these." Not long after he said this to England's Folk Roots Magazine last year, N'Dour toured in Europe, and he brought along Cheikh Lô as his opening act. These were Lô's first European performances.

"During the tour," he told me, "we rehearsed in the hotels, with just two acoustic guitars. So at the end of the tour in Belgium, Youssou went into the studio and he said, 'Okay, I'm going to make an acoustic record.'" The record N'Dour made, Lii!, is plainly influenced by the lighter, more naturalistic sound he had helped Lô to realize. The Senegalese public swooned. Those who feel that N'Dour has let his music drift too far in the direction of slick international pop were especially delighted. But the sound of Lii! is neither a return to Youssou's roots, nor a plain imitation Lô's efforts. It is the very thing that African pop admirers are finding harder and harder to come by these days: progress.

It remains to be seen whether N'Dour will release Lii! to the world-so far it is available only as an import, and not easy to find-but based on the success Lô is now having, he should. In the larger scheme of things, the quieter groups are African music's cutting edge these days, from the incorruptible roots music of Cesaria Evora and Oumou Sangare to the more calculated folk rock crossovers of Wassis Diop and Lôkua Kanza. But again, though Cheikh Lô may fit the formula, he is certainly not a product of it.

graphic Cheikh Lô's profile continued ....

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

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