Senegal's new Cheikh of Afropop
by Banning Eyre
Senegal's Cheikh Lo wears dreadlocks, but he's not a Rasta man and he doesn't
play reggae. He lives in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, but he mostly grew up
in landlocked Burkina Faso, more than a thousand miles inland. His music builds
from Dakar's dominant pop sound, mbalax, but puts an original spin on
the style, which first achieved international fame through Senegalese superstar
Youssou N'Dour. Lo keeps the music cool and open, and he throws in elements of
salsa, Zairean Congolese rumba, folk, and jazz. Out of just such enigmas come
some of the most rewarding discoveries in world music. His idiosyncrasies have
made him a star in Dakar and also in Europe, where he is being hailed by
critics as the best new artist to emerge from Africa in years.
Now that the British world-music label World Circuit has forged a distribution
deal with Nonesuch, Lo's debut international release, Ne La Thiass, is
finally out in the US. This belated release marks a milestone for African pop,
a genre thought to be floundering of late, seemingly trapped in its own
formulas. The roots styles are sounding redundant, the gleaming Euro-American
updates flat and overwrought. Enter Lo, the Muslim mystic with a soul singer's
pipes and a magical arranging touch. The nine tracks on Ne La Thiass
restore one's faith in the quirky delights of African songsmiths.
"Mine is soft mbalax," Lo explains over the phone from Germany during his
second European tour. "It's not aggressive. I don't want to say anything
against the pur et dur [pure and tough] mbalax, because that really
moves in Senegal. People are used to music with lots of percussion and force,
but I get the impression that musicians in Senegal think that you have to do
only that if you want to succeed. I had to find something that would set my
"Boul di Tagale," the lead track on Ne La Thiass, has a simmering
rhythmic drive punctuated by the crack of sabar drums, a mbalax
trademark. But instead of keyboards and electric guitars, a flute and two
acoustic guitars carry the melodies, giving the music a nostalgic breeziness.
Lo's voice rises from a brittle rasp to a glorious soul cry, exuding confidence
and mastery. He has a jazz singer's gift for rhythmic phrasing, using words and
articulations to draw cross-rhythms from his gently churning grooves. He
repeats the triplet phrase "Ne La Thiass" on the disc's flamenco-flavored title
track; with "Ndogal" he offers a playful tribute to Congolese crooner Tabu Ley,
whom he says he's admired since boyhood.
Lo attributes his eclecticism to the years he spent as a percussionist and
back-up singer, when he performed in a wide variety of styles in both Dakar and
Paris. He launched his solo career in 1990 with a cassette that did well with
the public but fell short of his own ambitions. Dissatisfied with the
follow-up, he decided not to release it; instead he bided his time until 1995,
when Youssou N'Dour -- recognizing Lo's unusual talent -- offered to produce
Ne La Thiass. N'Dour even sings on two tracks. Soon afterward he
recorded his own mostly acoustic release for the Senegalese market.
Lo's well-crafted, hook-laden pop songs convey an underlying spirituality that
fuels the music with chant melodies and righteous bursts of vocal passion.
Herein too lies the explanation for those dreadlocks. "Dreads with us signify
Baye Fall," he points out, "a mystic brotherhood within the Mourides [the
dominant sect of Senegalese Islam]. Cheikh Ibra Fall is the spiritual guide of
the Baye Fall. He was the first dread in Africa. Even now, you find these old
marabouts [Islamic sages], 80 years and older, in villages near Touba with
long, white dreads. When Rasta men come there, they're astonished."
And, just as Rastafarianism imbued roots reggae with an aura of
otherworldliness, Lo's consuming spirituality helps lift his music into the
realm of transcendental pop. "Pray to God as if you were going to die tomorrow;
work as if you were never going to die." This, he asserts, is the core of
Mouridism, and it helps explain why Mourides control a reported 80 percent of
the Senegalese economy. It's hard to say whether Lo's religious faith, his
musical breadth, or just his innate creativity is the decisive element in his
sound. But his work has a complexity, integrity, and force that leave more
calculating African folk-pop artists like Congo's Lokua Kanza and Senegal's
Wassis Diop far behind. African singers come and go with alarming speed in the
international pop arena, but for now, Cheikh Lo is the man to watch.