Senegalese artist Cheikh Lô blends African music with Latin flair
A mix of sounds drifted onto Liberty Street from the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor – smooth guitar melodies, exotic drums and the sultry call of a saxophone. At the front of the stage stood Cheikh Lô, a thin man with dreadlocks reaching the belt of his striped robe. As the drums reached a rapid crescendo, Lô approached the microphone, singing in Wolof, the language of his people in Senegal, West Africa.
Born in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso to Senegalese parents, Lô grew up speaking French, Wolof and Bambara, the language of Mali – a country bordering Senegal. Influenced by Cuban and Congolese music from an early age, Lô performed as a drummer and singer in Burkina Faso before moving to Dakar, Senegal in 1981 to advance his career.
Lô spent time as a studio drummer in Paris before returning to Senegal to focus on his own music – a move that caught the ear of Grammy-winning artist Youssou N’Dour, who produced some of Lô’s early albums.
Lô’s style of Mbalax music incorporates his early Cuban influences; his complex guitar melodies compete with saxophonist Wilfrid Zinssou’s relaxed tones. A range of rhythms fill in the background of Lô’s music, including percussion by Samba N’Dokh, Khadim M’Baye and Ndiaye Badou. Thierno Sarr and Baye Mahanta Diop polish the sound with bass and electric guitar.
“In the ’60s, just before and when I was starting, I was impressed and influenced by a lot of Afro-Cuban music, such as Barosso, and also music from Congo, Guinéa, Mali and Senegal – basically all of western Africa,” said Lô in a translated email interview with the Washtenaw Voice.
Lô’s music has been popular in West Africa and abroad. He has won several awards in South Africa and earned a National Order of Merit from former Senegalese President Abdu Diouf.
“I think people listening to my music understand it and also its message about love and peace, and that makes me very proud,” Lô said.
Most of the songs Lô performed in Ann Arbor on April 13 hail from his most recent album, “Jamm,” which is the Wolof word for peace – a feeling invoked in the relaxed sound of his music. For Lô, “Jamm” came about as a response to violent international events.
“Côte d’Ivoire was inflaming and violent, and I had also been watching America’s 9/11, so it was kind of an intuition that maybe things could also start to go bad and degenerate in Senegal and elsewhere around the world, so I said to myself, ‘we need peace, we need to make it happen!’ and I decided to call my album ‘Jamm,’” Lô said.
The fear of strife in Senegal hit home in late 2011, when Senegalese youth opposed the presidential candidacy of the incumbent Abdoulaye Wade.
“We could see the situation becoming tense; kids were burning tires in the streets, shouting and showing (dissatisfaction). Fortunately, a couple of weeks before the elections, people started realizing that the only good way to express themselves was by voting democratically,” said Lô, whose relief came when Wade conceded victory to current President Macky Sall after losing his re-election bid.
Throngs of concert-goers filed out of the Michigan Theater onto Liberty Street following Lô’s performance. University of Michigan seniors Chris Crawford and Kim Grambo, both 21, stayed behind in the theater lobby, chatting with friends after Lô’s concert.
“Fantastic,” Crawford said.
Both students were enamored with Samba N’Dokh’s performance with the Tama, a traditional ‘talking drum’ of the Wolof people that mimics human speech. They were also impressed by the camaraderie between musicians.
“You can tell how much fun they have playing together,” Grambo said.