Cheikh Lô

Cheikh LôThe New Voice of Senegal
Cheikh Lô
by Struan Douglas

“Me, I want to play every music. I want to travel, I want to discover every type of music… All this rhythm is Africa – it is the change of the name. I can feel the rhythm. I feel the rhythm. I know the rhythm is Africa. Today the rhythm is universal,” says Cheikh Lo in the charismatic expression that marks his music.

It was a typically dusty, dirty and insipidly hot day in Dakar and I had taken a cab out into the suburbs where Cheikh Lo lived. As was accustomed, our directions were poor and we relied again on street knowledge for our survival. After much pointing, animated explaining and sandy U-turns we arrived at his home.

“Me, I want to play every music. I want to travel, I want to discover every type of music.”

A picture of his tiny son poised behind a massive drum kit hung on the faded back wall of the lounge, another of the prophet Cheikh Ibra Fall, of the Baye Fall, hung adoringly framed on the opposite wall. Cheikh was in and amongst all of this, frenetically co-ordinating tours, talking on the ‘phone and shouting over the traditional Senegalese music blaring out of the sound system which sat in the corner of the room in a small oak cabinet, like a shrine surrounded by a few freshly picked flowers and a fascinating collection of disks.

“Me, I want to play every music. I want to travel, I want to discover every type of music. If you do that, you build one music, you create one music – because you can take here, take here, take here,” he says.

His music is just like that – a little bit of everything, Latin, Cuban, African and mbalax – but it comes together in a sound that is fresh, funky, vibrant. Beating tama-tamas thrash out the chaotic mbalax rhythm, funky basslines, Zairean Rumba and Cuban grooves together with that West African meets reggae back-beat to create an infinitely fashionable dance step, whilst his soaring voice conquers the frenzied emotions of his region. His mix is a unique and beautiful world music mix – a true African voice.

“Musicians must listen to other musicians to learn what to do and gain influences. Latin music influenced me as a little boy. Latin music is from Africa. My buzz musically is mbalax, but I listen to all music because I am curious – French music, American music, Cuban music, English music. Every music is Africa.”

Cheikh Lo expresses this “every music” with an intimate spirituality, so much a part of Senegal. Walking down the crazy hustle of Dakar’s streets, you are faced with the daily spirituality of the Muslim presence. During Friday lunch hours the streets are lined with people in beautiful flowing African robes – bent over in prayer. There is a small sect of people who hang outside a dingy yet tasty Lebanese take-away called Ado’s. They dance about with long dreads and Rastafarian iconography, very happy, very relaxed and tolerant – begging for their money. Occasionally, I gave them a little, occasionally I ignored them, but they were always friendly. They are the black Muslims, a small group in Senegal called the Baye Fall.

“I’m a Baye Fall – the first disciple of Cheikh Amadou Bab,” says Cheikh.

“He is the founder of the big temple in Tuba – he put the dreadlocks. If the Rastas came one day to Africa they will know their grandfather is a Baye Fall, because you are the same, the looks in Senegal and Jamaica.”

It is not that easy standing out in a conservative country. Lo lost his job playing in the house band at a local hotel for his dreads, and more than a few questions were raised amongst the locals about his ways. Happily, Senegal is very tolerant – people may not agree with his ways, but his intentions are good and that is the main thing.

“The conflict between all people aren’t Baye Fall. Today if you see the Arabic it is war war war. Everyday on the TV I see Arafat with the military, every year – how many years he do the war – he don’t stop the war. Mohammed is spiritual – he tells everybody – Arabian love – love your brother. The Bible say not war, love. The Q’uran say not war, love. Everywhere in the world say the same: not war, peace and love. Yes,” he sighs in an exaggerated pleasure of the basic simplicity of where religions meet. This is what Cheikh is about – telling the reality, honestly. Fighting the good cause sincerely.

As a result of this drive, he has made it to the top, and has become one of the West African artists to watch out for. He sits at the foot of a career poised to make a massive impression on the music market.

After trying to cut it in France and playing as a session musician for many years, Youssou N’Dour recognised Lo’s talent and immediately made a cassette with him – “Doxandeme”, which won him Dakar’s Nouveau Talent Award. His first full length album was recorded five years later at Youssou’s extravagant Xippi Studio in Dakar: “Ne La Thiass”.

In 1997 he won Best Newcomer at the Kora All Africa Music Awards, and in 1999 he received the prestigious Ordre National de Merit de Leon from the President of Senegal.

Now, Lo has a new release, “Bambay Gueej”, a beautiful hybrid from all over the world – essentially African and rooted in Senegal, the place he gains his inspiration from and the home he is loyal to.

“Everybody has this problem to live somewhere. I never want to go to live in Paris, England or anywhere. I want to live in Senegal because I know if you have peace, you have good in Senegal. The system is not closed – you are free.” “In Europe you can’t bring some money for the poor town. One moment you are there, then it is two years, three years you can’t come back. You are nothing. You drink alcohol,” he repeats with disgusted animation, “you have old women – what life do you have. Go home, go in your home man, there is a lot of jobs to do there, to build here in Africa.”
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