Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Catch Senegal's Cheikh Lô @ Great Hall tonight

Cheikh Lô is one of the great mavericks of African music. A superb singer and songwriter as well as a distinctive guitarist, percussionist and drummer he has distilled a variety of influences from West and Central Africa, to create a sound all his own.

Lô dedicates both his life and music to Baye Fall, a specifically Senegalese form of Islam and part of the larger Islamic brotherhood of Mouridism. Established by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba M’Becke at the end of the 19th century, Mouridism emerged from opposition to French colonialism and many stories are told of Bamba’s struggles with the authorities who feared that the rapid spread of Mouridism would inspire armed insurrection. Bamba’s closest disciple Cheikh Ibra Fall (also known as Lamp Fall)
established the Baye Fall movement, and he was the first to wear the patchwork clothes and long dreadlocks that are still Baye Fall trademarks today. Cheikh Lô’s own marabout, Maame Massamba N’Diaye is said to be over 100 years old, and was a disciple of Cheikh Ibra Fall; Cheikh Lô wears his picture in a pendant around his neck.

Cheikh Lô was born in 1955, to Senegalese parents in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, not far from the border with Mali, where he grew up speaking Bambara (language of Mali), Wolof (language of Senegal) and French. His father was from a long line of marabouts. From an early age Lô was only interested in music, running away from school to teach himself guitar and percussion on borrowed instruments. During his teens he listened to all kinds of music, especially the Congolese rumba which was popular throughout Africa. Cuban music was also all the rage in West Africa at this time, so when his older brothers started up their 78s and danced to ‘El Pancho Bravo’, Cheikh, without understanding a word, would mime exactly to the Spanish lyrics.

At 21 he started singing and playing percussion with Orchestra Volta Jazz in Bobo Dioulasso. The band played a variety of music from Burkina Faso and its neighbouring countries as well Cuban and other styles. In 1981 he moved to Dakar, Senegal where he played drums for the renowned and progressive singer, Ouza, before joining the house band at the Hotel Savana, drumming and singing an international repertoire.Three years later he was in Paris working day and night as an on-call session drummer. It was "studio... sleep... studio for two years," as Cheikh recalls. "I love Congolese and Cameroonian music and I absorbed a lot of it during this period.” Upon his return to Senegal, he found that his now very long dreadlocks made him no longer welcome at the Hotel Savana so he concentrated on his own music.

Cheikh’s first release Doxandeme (aka Immigrants), on which he sang about being Senegalese abroad, came out in 1990. Despite his reservations about the quality of the local production, it sold well and earned him the Nouveau Talent award in Dakar. Youssou N’Dour remembers first encountering Lô as a session singer in 1989. “Whenever he sang the choruses I was overwhelmed by his voice,” explains N’Dour “but I really got to know him from his Doxandeme cassette. I found something in his voice that’s like a voyage through Burkina, Niger, Mali.”

Lô continued to develop his own repertoire, holding out for the best recording conditions for his next production. On hearing Lô’s new songs N’Dour immediately agreed to produce and in August 1995 they went to work in Youssou’s Xippi Studio in Dakar on what would turn out to be his global breakthrough recording Ne La Thiass at the age of 40 years old.

The album sees Lô joined on vocals by Youssou N’Dour and by musicians from N’dour’s band Super Etoile de Dakar. Lô’s signature sound – a semi-acoustic, Spanish-tinged take on the popular mbalax style – was an instant success in Senegal gaining him a dedicated local following. Ne La Thiass was released internationally on World Circuit in 1996 followed by a European tour with his own band. His early performances prompted gushing reviews including an over-the-top comparison to the young Bob Marley from The Guardian.

In 1997 he was awarded Best Newcomer at the Kora All-African Awards in South Africa and the following year he toured the US and Canada as part of the Africa-Fête line-up that included Salif Keita, Maryan Mursal and Papa Wemba. In 1999 he received the prestigious Ordre National de Merite de Léon from the President of Senegal.

Cheikh’s follow-up Bambay Gueej, co-produced by N'Dour and Nick Gold with additional recording in Havana, was released by World Circuit in 1999. Expanding on his previous album, he drew on sounds from Burkina Faso, Mali (with guest vocalist Oumou Sangare), and incorporated touches of Cuban son (with Richard Egues on flute) and funk with James Brown sideman Pee Wee Ellis on sax.

After the album’s release, he continued to tour while developing song ideas for his next recording. His eclectic mix was furthered on 2005's Lamp Fall (World Circuit) by his discovery of Brazilian sounds and rhythms and he travelled to Bahia, Brazil to collaborate with acclaimed producer Alê Siqueira (Tribalistas, Omara Portuondo). These Brazilian recordings were coupled with sessions recorded in Dakar and London.

For the next few years Cheikh withdrew from the international stage and immersed himself in the Dakar scene playing regularly with his own band and this return home is reflected in 2010's Jamm. The blend of semi-acoustic flavours – West and Central African, Cuban, flamenco – resulted in a mature and diverse recording which he has yet to top. Jamm finished a respectable sixith on fRoots Magazine's influential year-end Albums of 2010 list right behind the late Ali Farka Touré's final collaboration with Toumani Diabate Ali and Toumani and the stellar AfroCubism project.

Of course Cheikh has been working on new material since Jamm's release – he debuted his Still Black, Still Proud project in Toronto back in November – and you'll get to hear exactly where he's at tonight (Wednesday, April 25) when he's joined by his full Dakar band on stage at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West). They tore the roof off Montreal's Le Cabaret Du Mile End during the Festival International Nuits d'Afrique on Saturday as can be seen below so expect nothing less here in Toronto. Tickets are $25 advance and available at African Drums & Art Crafts (618 Dundas St W), New Bilan Restaurant (183 Dundas St. E), Nharo! Direct Trade (543 Danforth), Soundscapes (572 College) and there may be a few tickets available at the door but get there early, it'll likely be a sell-out.

Cheikh Lô @ Cabaret Du Mile End, Montreal - April 21, 2012

Batuki Music Society Presents Cheikh Lo
Cheikh Lo Q&A interview with CBC

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