Cheikh Lô, onyx-eyed, dread-locked, rainbow-robed, spliff firmly wedged between bony expressive fingers, is telling me a story in scattergun bursts: “So the French started spreading fear to subdue the people. They rounded up 78 of the leading marabouts (holy men) in the land and they brought them to St Louis, the capital of Senegal at that time, and made them form a long queue in front of the big French colonial chief. “OK, you lot!” bellowed this grand colon. “You have a choice. Either you declare that the Koran means nothing and Mohammed was just another man like you or me, in which case we’ll reward you with 500 Francs, some tea and an ingot of sugar. Or my soldiers will take you away to a place from which you’ll never return.” The first marabout signed on the dotted line. So did the second, and the third. Then a tiny, waif of a man ran from the back of the queue like a lightening bolt to take the place of the fourth marabout. He nailed the big chief with a piercing glare and said, “You…you think you own this city, and this place. But you do not! This city is owned by He who made you and made me…it is owned by GOD!”
Cheikh Lô is uninterruptible now. He stops telling and starts acting out the tale of how his spiritual mentor, Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacke, was then lead away into exile on the tsetse fly-ridden island of Mayombé, off the coast of Gabon, and of all the miracles he performed along the way, which included praying on the surface of the ocean and flying back to the mainland like an eagle. It’s plain that all my previous questions about Cheikh Lo’s fine new album ‘Lamp Fall’, his youth in Burkina Faso, his years of hard musical apprenticeship in Dakar and Paris, and the international career that was so auspiciously launched back in 1996 with the help of Senegal’s pop godfather Youssou N’Dour, were only deemed worthy of dutiful, if polite, answers. Ask the man about Cheikh Bamba, however, or about his number one disciple Cheikh Ibra Fall, who founded the Baye Fall brotherhood of Sufis to which Lo is devoted, and he plugs straight into the spiritual mains and lights up.
It’s this gentle yet luminous spirituality that makes Cheikh Lo’s music so unique, injecting its boundary-busting mix of Cuban, Congolese, Senegalese mbalax and international pop flavours with a tender fire that banishes sentimentality or the empty pop formula. Lo is now 50 years old and philosophical about the time it’s taken him to deliver ‘Lamp Fall’, the ‘difficult’ third album, whose title is synonymous with the Baye Fall’s revered founder. “When I take stock,” he says, “I’m satisfied. It’s been ten years since I released my first album ‘Né La Thiass’, ten years of travel, touring, and promotion, all on an international scale. That all sounds positive to me. It’s the past that builds the present and the future, so if you like where you are, you have to thank the past for getting you there.”
Cheikh Lo has reasons to be thankful for his past. Born in the small but vibrant town of Bobo Dioulasso, in what is now Burkina Faso, he soaked up the old Cuban and Congolese rumba singles that his brothers used to play on their gramophone, “which were so rare,” he recalls, “ they were like jewels.” He became the dogsbody and apprentice percussionist in the local hi-life orchestra Volta Jazz aged 21, before moving to the Senegalese capital Dakar where he ended up playing French, American and Italian pop standards for the clientele of the Hotel Savana. His long and at times gruelling musical education was rounded off with two years in Marseille and Paris, hanging out in studios, picking up session fees of a few francs here and there, and, for while, playing percussion with the proto-French-rap-ragga-hardcore radicals Dirty District.
Lo chides the younger generation of Senegalese musicians for their blinkered obsession with mbalax, the talking-drum driven Senegalese dance style championed by Youssou N’Dour or eighties post-Michael Jackson pop and lately hip hop. “There were so many different ethnicities back in Bobo Dioulasso,” he remembers with enthusiasm, “and Volta Jazz featured singers from Guinea, the Congo, Mali and Burkina Faso. All of that gave me a culture of openness. The newer generation never had that. They can’t go back to the Cuban era or the time of the great African orchestras like Bembeya Jazz, because all of that’s been abolished. Senegalese hip-hop is like a carbon copy of the Americans, as if they were a mirror turned towards the TV.”
Lo’s himself deals in the sure-fire core values of pre-MIDI, pre-turntablism, pre-Pro Tools pop: good melodies, great singing and great instrumental skills. His own instrumental prowess is astonishing. Most of the guitar, drum and vocal parts on ‘Lamp Fall’ are his own. This respect for the essentials of ‘honest’ music making is shared by Nick Gold, boss of World Circuit and the co-producer of ‘Lamp Fall’. It was Gold who proposed a trip to Brazil to work with producer Alê Siqueira. “I spent 21 days in Salvador de Bahia,” recounts Lo. “It was enough to see what incredible musicians they have over there.” Lo worked in a buzzing if impoverished barrio of Bahia called Candeal, which is ruled by Brazilian megastar Carlinhos Brown and home to the Afro Bloc Ilê Aiyê. “I found the same African warmth out there,” says Lo. “The chest-bare kids playing football in the street, the screams, the noises and smells. Candeal reminded me of a shanty town in Dakar called Niaye Tioker, so I felt at home.”
The majestic Senegalese samba workouts on ‘Lamp Fall’ bear testimony to the success of this transatlantic musical encounter. It’s as if the ‘African’ belief systems of Brazilian candomblé and Senegalese Baye Fall Sufism were just waiting to meet, combine, and give us a double dose of epic spiritual power. But the quiet lamplight moments on the CD, like Lo’s tender paean to his wife Adji on ‘Sama Kaani Xeen’ (‘My Hot Pepper’) or his lament for the loss of his nephew on ‘Sante Yalla’ (‘Thanks Be To God’), exert their own magical form of magnetism.
With requisite Baye Fall humility, Lo gives off a quiet aura of well-earned satisfaction, after so many years of struggle at the bottom of the showbiz heap. Like all Africans, he had to fight hard to earn respect amongst his own for his decision to live the musician’s life, which has long been considered on a par with brothel creeping by polite African society. His mother was especially shocked and upset in the early days. Now that her son travels the world and appears regularly on TV back home in Senegal, she’s proud. “You notice that I put her picture in the CD booklet,” Lo says with a warm smile. “She’s understood that music isn’t a hooligan thing, it depends on how you approach it. I also now have a few more means to help her and support her. I’m glad she’s reached a point where she can be proud of me. That’s really a gift.”
Andy Morgan, (c) June 2006
First published in The Independent – June 2006